3 ways to approach an awkward conversation
Tuesday, April 11, 2017
Maybe the receptionist wears too much perfume. Or one of the accountants is always microwaving fish and broccoli in the break room. Perhaps the analyst you really want to promote just will not tuck his shirt in and keeps trying to convince everyone sneakers are dress shoes.
Employees will find a way to push the limits of acceptable behavior — with or without intention — and it is your role as a manager to address it. Here are three ways to approach awkward conversations and some things to consider in the process.
Rip the Band-Aid right off
Whether it is a personality trait or from years of practice, some of us are comfortable bringing employees into the office and addressing the issue forthright. This is a really handy skill to develop, but it should be tempered with an awareness of potential issues.
For example, the accountant might be microwaving fish because he is Catholic and is eating fish on Fridays during Lent. While it may still be fine to bring it to his attention that the smell of his lunch is affecting the workplace negatively, proposing an alternative that allows him to continue to eat what he chooses may be the safest approach. Letting him know about the issue and that you will be spraying a deodorizer shortly thereafter will allow him to keep eating and address the complaints regarding smell while being direct, honest and sensitive.
Delegate to a delegate
Unfortunately, not all of us are able to be politely direct. For those who are confrontation-averse, it may be helpful to delegate the task. The most natural place to send these conversations is HR. Most HR people are skilled, taught or can find the tools to address sticky issues in a workplace the appropriate way.
However, if there is no HR available, then using HR resources to prep for the conversation may help. (Here is a great blog post from the Society for Human Resources Management on the issue.)
As leaders, we may want to avoid getting involved in such issues, but if there is no HR then we are the most appropriate person to address it. In other words, even if your executive assistant is great at conducting such conversations, unless the employee works for her, she is not the best person for the job.
To keep the lines of communication and hierarchy clear, we can delegate to HR or learn to do it ourselves.
Circle around ... and back
Many of us tend to address the challenge in an indirect way. While this can work, it is important to understand that while we may think what we said was a clear hint, an employee may miss it completely.
For example, complimenting the high-performing employee who tends to underdress on the days he dresses up may be great reinforcement for the positive behavior, but he may not realize that it also means he is missing the mark on the other days. Thus, if not-so-subtle hints are having not-so-great results, it may be time to call the employee in for a more direct conversation.
Feel free to refer to the previous comments, but understand that those may have gone in one ear and out the other. In other words, be prepared for the employee to be surprised. Find a way to restate the issue clearly and ask him to repeat back what he understands before the meeting is concluded.
The bottom line is, while it may be difficult to address these smelly, messy situations, doing so promptly, professionally and by the appropriate manager or HR will minimize long-term issues and get the team back on track quickly.
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