The Sensitive Issue

I once had a course participant who had a real problem.  She was the supervisor at a transportation company, and she had an employee who had very bad breath.  Other employees complained to her and each other about this, and worse, the employee had a public-facing position. What to say or do?

I suggested a five step process for her to follow:

  1. Choose the time and place wisely

Choosing the right time and place for a private conversation is important.  Give the person an opportunity to mentally prepare for “an important conversation” and think carefully about when you are doing that. Is the employee in the middle of meeting a tight, stressful deadline?  Maybe that’s not the right time. Finding a private space where other employees won’t overhear is important as well.

  1. Make a personal connection to the employee and show empathy

Making a personal connection is something that ideally is happening on a regular basis, setting the stage for having difficult conversations.

  1. Lead in with a buffer statement 

Starting by saying “This may be difficult for you to hear…” or other buffer statement gives the receiver an opportunity to prepare for difficult news.

  1. Be direct about the issue, don’t resort to “hinting” which rarely works

Stating the issue dispassionately and directly lends clarity to the situation.  Get over your own discomfort in delivering direct messages. 

  1. State clearly what she needed from this employee

Be intentional about the end result you want by stating the outcome you want or need.

In this case, it this is how she implemented the 5 steps:

  1. She told the employee she wanted to have an important conversation with him and invited him to her office at a set time.  This gave him advance notice so that he could at least be ready to hear important information.
  2. She started the meeting by telling him, “Joe, I care about you as an employee and your success is important to me.”
  3. “This may be difficult for you to hear but I need to tell you.”
  4.  “There are times when your breath is strong.” 
  1. “I’m concerned about your health, so I am hoping you’d be willing to follow up with your doctor or dentist about the issue. Would that work for you?”

Note that she doesn’t say “You have bad breath”- she separates the issue from him to depersonalize it and calls it “strong” which is more neutral sounding than “bad.”  She also doesn’t deflect and say that other employees have complained about it, which would likely make Joe feel awful. She also used the phrase “There are times when…”  this phrase is useful and keeps us from saying things like “you always” or “you never.”  In fact, it keeps us from saying “You” which helps to depersonalize even more.

The result?  Joe did see his doctor, and it turned out that he was suffering from an ulcer, which caused his breath odor.  Joe got well, and his wife actually called the supervisor to thank her for getting her husband to go to the doctor.

Ideally, creating strong, empathetic relationships with people we interact with, whether professional or personal, gives us a “bank account” of goodwill to draw upon when the hard things need expressing so we can do it with candor, clarity and empathy, and feel confident in doing so.

Bottom Line:  Difficult conversations about sensitive issues need not be awkward.  Follow this simple 5 step process.  It’s a skill you can constantly improve on.