You Stink! How to Have Difficult Conversations with Employees

When I first started out in Human Resources, I used to think the hardest part of the job would be terminating employees. I was wrong. It turned out that it was much more challenging to have uncomfortable conversations with people. If you are a manager or work in HR, you know what I am talking about. It’s the dreaded hygiene conversation, talking to someone about wearing inappropriate clothing or having to tell someone with a loud voice to watch their volume.

You Stink! How to Have Difficult Conversations with Employees


Whenever possible, it is best for the employee’s manager to address the problem, and at larger companies, HR can usually provide guidance the best ways to approach the conversation. However, at small businesses, this task usually falls to the owner or office manager. It is always best to address the situation sooner rather than later to avoid passive aggressive coworkers doing things like leaving soap on a malodorous employee’s desk. Here are some tips to guide you through those awkward conversations.

Assess the Situation

Often we find out about a problem because the offending employee’s coworkers will come talk to us. Start by assessing the situation to determine how bad the problem is. Decide if it is a case of overly sensitive coworkers or if it is truly an issue that needs to be addressed. It may be necessary to do a little detective work as well.

If the problem is with hygiene, talk to the employee in question about things unrelated to hygiene just to see if you notice an odor. If it is a matter of the employee speaking too loud on the phone, walk by their workstation throughout the workday to see if their volume is too much. Then, depending on the severity of the issue, you can proceed with this first-hand information.

Be Sensitive

As a manager, it can be awkward to talk to an employee about something like hygiene, but it can be downright embarrassing for the employee. Be sensitive to the fact that the employee may be emotional about receiving this news. Remember that people do not always perceive how their behavior is affecting others, and some might be upset to think that something they do bothers coworkers so much.

Have the conversation in a private place such as an office where you won’t be interrupted. Be direct about the situation, but avoid being condescending. Explain what your company’s written policy is and how the behavior affects others. Sometimes you can use a story from your own life to help. In the case of a loud talker, mention that you had the same problem in the past until an officemate pointed out the level of your volume.

Remember with hygiene issues that the root cause could be medical, so this may be a bigger issue than bathing more regularly, washing clothes more often or using deodorant. Some medical conditions or medication may cause body odor issues, which may mean that coworkers need to find a way to adapt. Remember that this is much more difficult for the person suffering from the issue that causes the odor.

What we perceive as hygiene issues could also be cultural, so be sensitive to someone’s cultural practices, including hygiene and the type of food they eat that may cause a certain odor. Try to find a solution that respects the person’s culture and the work environment.

Taking the Group Approach

Sometimes the problem is a little more widespread than one person. At one place I worked, we had a department that contained a lot of young women. People dressed casually at the company, but about half of the women in the department pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable casual office attire. Because the issue was not isolated, the manager and I held a meeting with all the women in the department to do a general review of the company’s dress code policy and to discuss appropriate work attire.

By having a group meeting, we made sure no one felt singled out, which minimizes the risk of someone feeling bad. People went home and did a self-assessment and fixed their work attire. If the problem persists with individuals after a group meeting, pull those employee’s aside for one-on-one meetings.

Be Helpful

I one time talked to an employee with an odor problem. He told me he was struggling with a lot of issues in his personal life, including a recent divorce. Things like bathing daily and doing laundry regularly were falling by the wayside while he tried to put his life back together. He had not realized how bad his hygiene had gotten. I was able to give him some referrals to low cost counseling to help him focus on taking care of himself.

With any issue, remember that there could be a deeper problem the employee is dealing with. Have a list of resources available to help employees when necessary. The key is to create a supportive environment rather than an accusatory one.

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Stephanie Hammerwold

Stephanie Hammerwold, is the founder and director of Pacific Reentry Career Services, a Southern California nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated women find and maintain employment. She also blogs on a variety of HR topics as the HR Hammer. When not volunteering for her nonprofit, Stephanie has a day job in HR at a tech startup in Irvine, CA.


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