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Conversations… How to Handle Those Awkward Situations

hr best practices hr compliance hr department hr essentials hr management team management May 10, 2021

Just when we think we’ve heard it all – things come up that we aren’t sure how to handle, or want input from others to be sure we’re on the right track. Few weeks back, I was conducting a program for my membership community and got the question I always hate – but hear every few years. “How do we talk to an employee with a body odor problem?” While it may seem odd on the surface, it comes up in organizations more than you might think.

Addressing this situation is a critical issue for your business, it impacts other employees and customers, and while you might just hope it corrects itself, often it won’t. The conversation can be handled in a professional way that will hopefully create a positive change for you and the employee.  But you may not have the answer on your own, and connecting with peers is a great way to ensure that you approach delicate situations with options.

I had an interesting twist on this situation early in my HR career.  We had a customer service team member who use to use very offensive perfume. Customers did not want to work with her, and co-workers were clear in how distracting the smell was. When we spoke to her about the issue, she felt bad and agreed not to use that perfume in future. The next day she arrived at work with the worst body odor many of us had ever encountered. When I called her in, she indicated that was the reason she was using the perfume, she has a medical condition which causes the odor.   I expressed my sympathy for the issue she must be dealing with. Together we agreed she would try a number of other perfumes, until we found a workable solution for all.

In the end, we found a fragrance that masked her issue and was mild and pleasant for others on the team to tolerate. She was very appreciative of the honest way we had the conversation in a factual manner and helped her solve the issue.

HR professionals will caution that communication needs to stay focused on how the situation impacts the team and performance. There could be an underlying medical issue. If that is the case, you will want to work with the employee to make any accommodations that are appropriate for your organization and available under the American with Disabilities Act. But, it does impact performance when team members won’t include that employee on meetings and customers might choose to go to your competition rather than work with that employee.

When the situation arises,

  1. Witness the situation yourself. You don’t want to make it worse by letting the employee think there has been a complaint. Understand the employee, their lifestyle and be ready to treat this as a medical issue. This is a very sensitive topic, and should only be addressed for ongoing or recurring situations.
  2. The employee is bound to be embarrassed. Take stock in your relationship with the particular employee. Are you the best one to approach the conversation? Maybe there is another manager they have a closer relationship with, who can address the subject in a very friendly way. Be honest and address the fact that its awkward, but you want to help.
  3. Have a private conversation. Be sure that in fact you are alone, and not in a location with traffic flow that may overhear the conversation. Consider conducting the meeting at the end of the day so that the employee can leave following the meeting and give thought to next steps. Imagine if you point this out at 11am and they have to sit at their desk all day!
  4. Ask the employee how you can help and genuinely try to help them solve the issue. If it is medical in nature, be supportive of appointments and specialists. Get HR involved quickly for proper handling of ADA or FMLA requirements.
  5. End the conversation assuring the employee that they are a valuable member of the team – assuming they are. You appreciate the work they do every day and want to solve this problem together.

There are many conversations with employees that are difficult to have. As leaders we need to take the step to address workplace situations, even when the conversation is embarrassing or uncomfortable. Doing so will ensure you are always putting the whole team first and doing what is best for your business.

And – as a HR professional you don’t have to figure it out on your own!  Get involved in your local SHRM chapter, meet other HR professionals in your industry and for a vibrant group offering connections and training – consider our HR membership community!  We’d love to have you join us.

Thanks for reading!

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