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What to Say to Employees About Embarrassing Personal Issues

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Everybody dreads having those "difficult conversations" with employees about personal issues. Here are some examples of how they can be handled gracefully — including the actual words to use.

Paul Falcone, Vice President of Employee Relations for Time Warner Cable in Los Angeles and a respected author on employee management, gave an in-depth presentation on the topic at a SHRM conference in San Diego. Here is a brief rundown of what he had to say:

Going in

Managers' mindset heading into one of these confrontations is key to a positive outcome. Here are a few of what Falcone calls his "rules of engagement:"

  • Each to his own without judgment
  • What you want for yourself, give another
  • It is not what you say but how you say it
  • Perception is reality until proven otherwise, and
  • Put others' needs ahead of your own by treating them with dignity and respect, and expect them to respond in kind.

Falcone share his take on two of the toughest personnel issues to confront: attitude problems and "aroma" situations like bad breath and body odor.

Attitude problems

Falcone offers three rules concerning confronting employees with negative attitudes:

  • Tell the person in private how you perceive his/her actions and how they make you feel
  • Avoid the term "attitude" — replace it with "behavior" or "conduct," and
  • Be specific about the problematic behaviors.

Some sample dialogue:

Lisa, I need your help. You know how they say perception is reality until proven otherwise? Well, I feel like you're angry with me or the rest of the group.

I may be off in my assumption, but that's an honest assessment of the perception you're giving off...

Let me ask you: How would you feel if you were the supervisor and one of your staff members responded that way in front of your team? Likewise, how would it make you feel if I responded to your questions with that kind of voice or body language?

The odor issues

These are the discussions that make managers' knees shake. A few well-chosen words from Falcone:

Dominic, I called you into my office because I want to speak with you privately ... The feedback back is difficult to share, and I'm pretty uncomfortable right now, so I want to make this as simple and straightforward as possible: I believe you may have a problem with (bad breath or body odor).


Ed, I wanted to meet with you one-on-one because I need to share something with you privately, discreetly, and with as much sensitivity as possible ...

You may not realize it, but it appears you have a body odor problem, and it isn't merely a personal matter — it's a workplace disruption issue I'll need your help to repair ...

I've had conversations like this with other employees before, and usually they're not even aware that the problem exists. I don't mean to make you uncomfortable, but are you aware of the issue, and if so, is it something you could take care of?

I'm here to help in any way I can. If you'd like to set up a fan in your office, or arrange your schedule so you could take breaks during the day to freshen up, I'd be very supportive of that. Just let me know whatever I can do to help, OK?

If you wouldn't mind, though, I'd prefer not to have to address this again — it's a bit uncomfortable for me. So is this something you feel you can fix from here on in?

Final tip from Falcone: Always focus on shifting the responsibility for fixing the problem to the employee — emphasizing that not fixing the problem will carry consequences.

Posted In: Human Resources, General

Want to know more? Read the full article by Tim Gould at HR Morning

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