My first book, “You Have to Say the Words: Practical Advice for Every Leader on How to Have the Tough Conversations” is finally in the process of being published. I thought today I might give you a sample from one of the chapters on how to address sensitive or uncomfortable topics in the workplace. I hope you enjoy it!
Not surprisingly, some of the topics that fall into the category of “Sensitive Conversations” can make the strongest leader go weak in the knees. Sensitive topics are the last thing in the world most people want to talk about, but when these very personal issues crop up in the workplace and negatively impact performance or career advancement, they must be addressed head on.
Examples of sensitive topics that many managers find uncomfortable to address include:
- Personal hygiene / Body odor / Bad breath
- Appropriateness of dress / Professional image
- Office romance / Sexual Behavior
- Medical / Mental health issues
- Personal or family related issues
- Alcohol / Drug abuse
Leaders need to know how to effectively handle delicate issues such as these in the workplace with compassion and sensitivity. If you manage enough people, you will eventually have to address a sensitive which may be negatively impacting performance, perception or team morale.
Here are some general guidelines to consider when addressing a sensitive issue.
- Maintain the employee’s dignity at all times. Choose a quiet setting for the conversation and protect their privacy and confidentiality.
- Demonstrate your compassion and appreciation for how uncomfortable or embarrassing the situation might be for them through the tone of your voice, your word choice and your body language.
- Be direct and specific in your language. You need to be very clear what you are talking about. Don’t leave it up to them to read between the lines.
- Make sure you articulate how the sensitive issue relates to a specific performance concern. For example, if your receptionist is wearing outfits better suited to a night club than your professional office environment, you need to make it clear that her wardrobe choice is negatively impacting the customers’ perception of the business and her credibility rather than just stating you think her blouses are cut too low.
- Be clear as to whether you are just sharing concern for them on a personal level or if the issue has begun to negatively impact their performance. For example, someone who loses their spouse may be distracted and depressed for some period of time. You need to make it clear when you have moved from expressing compassion over their loss to concern that their extended lack of focus is now detracting from their performance.
- Co-workers who initially are very supportive and protective of a team member who is going through a difficult personal situation can often grow tired and intolerant of that employee and their troubles if they are left to pick up the slack for too long. Be mindful of this potential attitude and support shift on your team.
- Use your resources so that you completely understand any potential legal issues involved with addressing any medical, mental health or substance abuse situations. For example, someone who is found to be under the influence of alcohol at work can have their employment terminated for violating policy, but depending on their circumstances, if they have an addiction and are seeking rehabilitation they may be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Seek legal advice as appropriate.
- Know when conversations need to move from expressions of concern to the disciplinary process. Even if the issue is sensitive in nature such as a body odor issue, if it continues to linger after being addressed and negatively impacts performance, (the employee’s or their co-workers), it needs to be documented and dealt with using the company’s progressive discipline process. Again, be aware of any extenuating legal concerns in pursuing termination.
- Follow proper procedures to investigate, document and respond to any claim of harassment, especially sexual harassment. Maintain confidentiality to the best of your ability and protect the individuals from retaliation. Because of the sensitive nature and potential legal exposure involved in claims of harassment, they are often diverted to Human Resources for investigation and handling.
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