The Fine Art of Icky Employee Conversations

Topics include:

Bob, when was the last time you brushed your teeth?

Bob, when was the last time you brushed your teeth?

One thing many managers may not appreciate about being a manager is the necessity of having icky conversations. What is an icky conversation? It might be telling the associate, driving with you to the sales call, that his breath could stop a rhinoceros in full charge. These conversations aren’t safely bound by measurable goals and tasks. This stuff tends to be personal.

Icky conversations often center on behavior you wouldn’t have assessed during a job interview:

  • Wiping one’s nose with one’s hand and then shaking hands with others.
  • Wearing inappropriate clothing, from ripped jeans and a tank top to a meeting with suits or obscenely short shorts (yeah, it was the fad for like 15 minutes!)
  • Failing to wash the coffee cups and other dishes one uses in the company kitchen
  • Foregoing deodorant.

Not to mention the host of eating behaviors that could make an appearance at a lunch meeting.

The reason these conversations are so icky, besides the fact that they often involve very earthy topics, is that they seem to move a manager out of the position of “boss” and into the position of “parent.” I mean, there was probably nothing on the job description about chewing with your mouth closed.

Nonetheless, it is the job of the manager to address these issues. How is it done professionally?

  • Have the talk in private. Don’t embarrass an employee in front of his peers by bringing up these personal matters in a meeting, for example.
  • Bring up something positive first, if you truthfully have something good to say: Jane,, your work around here has been great. But there’s this issue I want to talk to you about….”
  • Relate it to business. “Your chosen attire today is distracting to other employees and clients. (Do you need a dress code policy?  Maybe not. Our policy is ‘Don’t make the exception the rule.’ It is true that it’s easier to write a general policy than have an icky conversation. But if it’s just the one employee…do you want a written policy stating “When you come to work you need to look and smell clean”? Maybe not so much.
  • Don’t apologize, this is your job. But be as kind as you can.
  • Be prepared for a variety of responses from “What?  I had no idea, sorry!” to “Wow! You are sooo uptight!” Whatever the response, don’t take it personally.  You have communicated the behavior needs to change – not the person.
  • Follow up if necessary.

You might practice various ways of telling someone these unpleasant things with an HR professional, before actually approaching the employee.

And by the way, your fly’s open.

Ever have an icky conversation? How did you handle it?




We work with companies on a project basis or on retainer, providing a custom level of HR help designed for your business, with offices in Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Houston. Contact me at Caroline@valentinehr.com or call (512) 420-8267.