Experts Weigh In: How do you handle sensitive workplace issues?

Do Your Taxes Have Bad BreathWhether you have a great HR team or you deal with your employees directly as the small business owner, dealing with sensitive workplace issues is always tricky. We’ve all heard about the co-worker who likes to warm up fish in the microwave everyday, or skips the all too frequent shower. Between dealing with body odor and inappropriate dress, we asked our pool of small business experts how they deal with sensitive workplace issues. These were our 10 favorite answers:

1.“I deal with workplace issues privately and head on in real-time as they happen. Dancing around the real issues is tiresome, wasteful, and sets the foundation for a water-cooler culture.” -Ryan P. Blanck, CPF, CPT, offtrackonpurpose.com

2.“In my role as a Leadership Coach, I incorporated these types of situations into our leadership development programs because they happen more frequently than people think.

I’d recommend being compassionate and asking open-ended questions vs being confrontational. For example start with a statement to connect and show that your intention for having this conversation is coming from a caring place. Share a story if possible of a somewhat similar situation to show you’ve been there (i.e. I ate a lot of garlic food once and…) and lastly and if appropriate ask them if you can help in some way. Coming from a caring and compassionate place completely reduces the tension and uneasiness of having to have this conversation.” -Anu Mandapati, IMPACT Leadership for Women 

3.“In my book, Bankable Leadership, I discuss the concept of managers treating employees like adults by viewing employees as competent, well-meaning professionals with good judgment. A company shouldn’t create a lengthy laundry list of policies that can be interpreted as not trusting employees to make the right decisions. Instead, leaders should set clear expectations for their employees from the start. If an issue arises that requires a conversation between a manager and an employee, the manager should reiterate what the company expects from the employee, address the problem, and emphasize that the employee is trusted to make the right decisions moving forward.” -Dr. Tasha Eurich, Author

4.“If the requirements are not mentioned in the employee’s handbook, then the HR manager should have a meeting regarding issues as such. This is a very delicate matter and has to be discussed kindly. These sorts of things need to be incorporated into the office culture as a mandatory rule. You can also address the issue directly and privately with just the management. (Co-workers shouldn’t make remarks, or negative comments.)

Inappropriate office attire, bad personal hygiene and smelly lunches could be a very unpleasant and uncomfortable distraction. Unfortunately, common sense is not always common practice.” -Maryanne Parker, Manor of Manners

5.“If you are close with a co-worker and feel comfortable enough to address the issue of inappropriate dress, discuss your concern over your friend/co-worker’s choice of clothing over lunch. Let him or her know you are sharing your concerns because you are sure he/she’s not aware of the message it’s sending to others in the office. Another alternative is to speak to your supervisor confidentially – but first make sure your motives are sincere. Finally, there should be a clear dress code in place to alleviate any doubt as to what is considered office appropriate. 

As for body odor, if the situation continues, let your supervisor handle it and 
stay out of the conversation. 

When it comes to smelly lunches and bad breath, the bottom line is deciding whether speaking up is worth the risk of damaging an office relationship. For bad breath, offer 
your co-worker a mint but think carefully before outright saying you have offensive breath. Smelly lunches are difficult to control and it is up to each employee to be a courteous co-worker. As a supervisor or the boss you may say something like, hey guys, the office lunch room has a lingering smell of fish today and we have clients coming in an hour. Let’s all be mindful of the smells we bring in.” -Diane Gottsman, The Protocol School of Texas

6.“To ensure limited sensitivity issues arising in the workplace, I believe employees should be properly trained and action should immediately take place in the event of a violation. In the event of a violation, it is important to maintain the employee’s dignity at all times and be able to articulate how the issue is related to performance and professionalism concern. Communicate the difficult issue with the team in mind and always tie in why the issue is a company matter.” -Joy Rohadfox, Rohadfox Construction Control Services Corporation 

7.“If you haven’t observed the problem yourself, do not reveal how you became aware of it as long as the complaining party is credible. Anonymity is important if you want to get information in the future and maintain harmonious relationships in your business. It’s much easier to say, I understand that you may be emitting an unusual odor, rather than saying, 

everyone who sits near you is complaining about your body odor, bad breath, etc. Nothing good will come from an accusatory approach. Secondly, create the opportunity for the employee to provide his/her side of the story. Many common issues can be related to medical conditions, medications, etc. and can even be protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act/Amendments Act. Exhibit sensitivity with the employee — both of you will feel better about the conversation during and afterward.” -Susan Hosage, MS, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, Consultant/Executive and Professional Coach

8.“It’s important to be sure that the person in concern does not have a health condition, which can cause odors. In that case you may want to place them in a separate office. The longer you let this feedback go the longer the person will have no idea that they are a problem. When told they may have a strong reaction about hearing about this after so much time, so be sure to not sit on these conversations. I have had to give this kind of feedback many times and it is uncomfortable but people usually receive it with embarrassment and do try to cooperate.” -Kathi Elster, K Squared Enterprises

9.“The best way to tackle a sensitive workplace issue is head on! Nothing is worse than a lingering problem that everyone is trying to ignore. The best way to approach the sensitive topic is to meet with the team member confidentially, and explain the perception that other team members have about the smell, relationship and/or clothing issue. This allows the team member to correct the problem on their own without others knowing you had the talk.” -Heather Neisen, TechnologyAdvice

10.“Although employers may feel uncomfortable dealing with certain issues caused by inappropriateness or bad habits, it is important for employers to not ignore these issues as they may be disturbing and distracting for other employees and affecting the overall workplace atmosphere.

As an employer or person in a management position, never jump to conclusions before knowing the full story and always sit down with the employee in question to get a better understanding of their situation and whether or not they have some circumstances more serious than meets the eye going on in their lives.

Begin by using a soft approach so as to not send the employee into a state of panic, but also be serious and do not beat around the bush so that they understand the gravity of the situation. Feel free to address your hygiene policies and code of conduct to address the employees’ issues so that they see things from a purely business perspective and don’t take anything personally.” –Michael Lan, Resume Writer Direct 

It seems the universal takeaway point from our experts is to handle these tricky issues head-on, but with kindness and understanding. No one likes to have these conversations, but even more so, no one wants to be on the receiving end of these conversations, so just be sure to proceed with tenderness and an open mind.

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Deborah Sweeney

is the CEO of MyCorporation.com. MyCorporation is a leader in online legal filing services for entrepreneurs and businesses, providing start-up bundles that include corporation and LLC formation, registered agent, DBA, and trademark & copyright filing services. MyCorporation does all the work, making the business formation and maintenance quick and painless, so business owners can focus on what they do best.