The Unavoidable Icky Conversations

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 will be a problem in the client meeting.  These kinds of 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 the client
  • Wearing inappropriate clothing, from ripped jeans and a tank-top to a meeting with clients in suits or short shorts that display the human form usually reserved for the beach (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 questionable dining 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 is probably nothing in the manager’s job description regarding schooling an employee about chewing with her mouth closed.

Nonetheless, it is often the job of the manager to address these issues. Ever had an icky conversation? How did you handle it?   Here’s a handy set of tips to consider:

  • 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.
  • Relate it to business. “Your chosen attire today does not meet the definition of business casual to a reasonable person.”
  • Don’t apologize, this is your job. But also don’t let your potential uncomfortableness about the pending conversation lead you to react with anger or frustration towards the employee.
  • 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 that the person needs to change. 
  • 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, there appears to be some blueberry in your front tooth.  Just wanted you to know!

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