How to Discuss Uncomfortable Personal Issues With Your Employees

There are certain subjects that you will probably never feel comfortable discussing with your employees. Whether the issue revolves around inappropriate dress, bad hygiene, attitude problems, or cultural misunderstandings, some situations can be very tough to bring to discussion. Your first instinct may be to avoid the situation altogether, but because these issues can have a bearing on the productivity, cohesiveness, and culture of your workplace, it’s important that you try to solve the problem rather than sidestep it.

But how do you talk to your employees about sensitive personal matters? How do you bring the issue to light without offending the employee, embarrassing one or both of you, or in extreme situations, putting your company at risk of a lawsuit? There’s no simple answer, as each discussion must be tailored to the specifics of the issue at hand, but there are some general rules that apply to most situations in which you’re forced to confront an employee about an uncomfortable problem:

Always be sensitive.

Empathy and sensitivity are crucial when discussing a touchy subject with an employee. Too often, employers mistakenly believe that a joking, lighthearted approach will make both parties feel more at ease in a mutually uncomfortable situation, and while this is sometimes true, this approach tends to do more harm than good. Unless you’re extremely close with the employee, it’s best to be as cautious as possible and to assume that the employee won’t take well to you making light of the situation. Be as sensitive as possible, and try to remember that if you’re feeling awkward, chances are, the employee is feeling doubly so.

Picture this scenario for example: One of your employees is a great worker and a strong member of the team, but his body odor is overpowering. Other employees have mentioned that his odor is distracting, so it’s become impossible for you to ignore the problem any longer. This conversation is going to be difficult for you, of course, but put yourself in his shoes. Try to imagine how embarrassed you would feel if your body odor was offensive enough that your boss actually had to confront you about it. As the employer, your absolute worst course of action in this instance would be to make a misjudged joke, making the employee feel ridiculed and humiliated. Whether you like it or not, we live in an age where political correctness rules, an age where anything you say is bound to offend someone. So before you confront the employee, be sure to plan a sufficiently sensitive and empathetic approach that respects the employee’s cultural, religious, and gender differences, as well as their emotions.

Choose your words wisely.

When you’re forced to meet with an employee to take on an awkward subject, remember this old saying: “It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it.” This is absolutely true in these types of situations because you have two goals when confronting your employee. Not only must you convey your message in such a way that the problem actually gets fixed, but you must do so while minimizing the embarrassment you and your employee experience as a result.

Do not choose language that will make your employee feel as if they’re being attacked. This means you’ll want to avoid using an accusatory tone, which is likely to result in anger and defense mechanisms than in a peacefully and maturely resolved situation. Instead, try to engage feelings other than anger. Another thing that’s helpful is to phrase your discussion in terms of perceptions because this allows you to outline the problem without giving your employee the chance to counter your points. For example, saying “You’re dressed inappropriately today. You’re showing way too much cleavage,” will be much less effective than something like “I feel as though some of our customers may be offended or distracted by the way you’re dressed today.” See the difference? The employee can’t argue against the latter because it involves the way you perceive something or the way you feel. And feelings are neither right nor wrong.

Treat them like adults.

Unfortunately, many of these discussions will put you in a position where you’re tempted – whether you realize it or not – to treat the employee like a child. This is absolutely the worst mistake you can make as a manager, because, on top of feeling uncomfortable, embarrassed, and humiliated, if you treat the employee like a juvenile, they’ll also feel angry and resentful. Therefore, make sure to make every effort to ensure that your employee does not feel patronized.

One way to do so is to give the employee an opportunity to present a solution to the problem. It seems simple, but it can make a big difference in how the employee perceives the discussion. In the example with the inappropriately dressed woman, after bringing the issue to light, the employer should avoid saying, “I think you should go home and change.” Rather than instructing her on the next course of action, he should ask her what she thinks they can do to fix the problem. Although you’ll usually already know the answer, by allowing the employee to present the solution on their own rather than telling them what to do, you help them to walk away from the conversation without feeling belittled or humiliated. Referring to the example, when retelling the story, the woman would probably say that she “offered” to go home and change. This makes her feel more in charge, and it helps make everyone feel better about the confrontation.

There will never be an easy way to bring up uncomfortable personal issues with employees, but you can take steps to make the conversation less unpleasant. Be sensitive and empathetic, and try to plan your language around eliciting positive emotions from the employee. Finally, treat them like the adults they are, and let them help you come up with a solution to the problem. That way, your company can get back to business as usual without your employee feeling resentful or angry.

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