Addressing Uncomfortable Personal Issues in the Workplace

There are certain personal issues you will probably never feel comfortable discussing with your employees. Whether the discussion involves problems with attitude, inappropriate dress, inadequate hygiene, or cultural misunderstandings, your first instinct may be to avoid the situation altogether. However, these issues can – and often do – have a real effect on the productivity and cohesiveness of your workplace and should therefore be addressed promptly and with professionalism.

As a manager, though, how do you meet with your employees about personal matters? How do you introduce the problem without offending the employee, embarrassing them (as well as yourself), or, worse yet, putting your company at risk of a lawsuit? While each personal issue must be handled differently depending on the specifics of the situation, there are some general rules that will apply to most instances in which you are forced to confront an employee about a personal matter.

1. Sensitivity is key.

Sensitivity and empathy are extremely important when discussing a touchy subject with your employee. Many employers fall victim to the reasoning that a joking, lighthearted approach could help make both parties more comfortable in a mutually unpleasant situation; while this is sometimes true, this method usually does more harm than good. Therefore, it is better to err on the side of caution and treat the situation with seriousness. If you feel awkward having the conversation with your employee, chances are, they’re having the same feelings, only twice as strong.

Picture a scenario, for example, in which you must confront your employee about his overpowering and distracting body odor. It’s an unpleasant conversation for you, to be sure, but imagine how embarrassed he must feel. Your worst course of action would be to humiliate him further by making a misjudged joke and leading him to believe that he’s being ridiculed. Like it or not, we live in an age of political correctness, an age where everything offends someone. So, in addition to showing concern for the employee’s feelings, this emphasis on sensitivity and empathy also requires you to indicate that you have an understanding of cultural, religious, or gender differences.

when your coworker has dandruff problems2. Choose your words wisely.

When meeting with an employee to discuss an uncomfortable situation, remember this old adage: “It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it.” This is almost universally true when confronting your employee about a personal issue. You must choose your words and tone very carefully when conveying your message in order to make the discussion productive, while minimizing embarrassment for both you and your employee. Do not choose language that makes your employee feel as if they are being attacked, and do not use an accusatory tone. These types of communication are more likely to result in anger and a defensive attitude than in a peacefully resolved situation. Instead, try to engage their feelings with your language. Guilt is much more beneficial to your cause than anger.

Also, try to voice your side of the discussion in terms of perceptions, as this allows you to present your case without giving the employee much of an opportunity to counter your points. Saying, “You are dressed inappropriately today. You are showing too much cleavage,” will be much less effective than saying, “I feel as though some of our clients might be offended by the way you’re dressed today.” Notice the difference? The latter cannot be easily argued because it involves the way you feel, and feelings are neither right nor wrong.

3. Treat them like adults.

The temptation inherent in many of these difficult conversations is to treat the employee – whether intentionally or unintentionally – like a juvenile. This is quite possibly the worst mistake you can make as a manager, because it breeds resentment, anger, and sheer humiliation in your employee, and none of these feelings contribute to either workplace productivity or loyalty. Therefore, make every effort to inform your employee that you acknowledge both their maturity and sensitivity of the situation, and assure them that your goal is neither to embarrass nor to offend them.

Another way to maintain your employee’s dignity is to give them an opportunity to present the solution for the problem. If your employee is the woman who came to work inappropriately dressed, do not instruct her on the next course of action. (“I think you should go home and change.”) Instead, ask her, “What can we do to fix this problem?” Although you already know the answer, it is important to allow her to present the solution herself. This ensures that the employee can walk away from the discussion without feeling humiliated or belittled.

Although issues involving personal matters are never easy to review with your employees, there are ways to make the discussions less unpleasant. By focusing on sensitivity, planning your language carefully, and treating your employees like the adults they are, you can work alongside them to effectively resolve the issue. This allows your company to get back to business without undermining your employee’s dignity.

About Andrew Jensen

Andrew Jensen, a business growth, efficiency & marketing consultant, provides business advisory services for clients in the Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; York, Hanover, Lancaster & Harrisburg, PA regions. Andrew advises regarding business growth, productivity, efficiency, business startups, customer service, and online/offline marketing. Follow Andrew on Google+

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