I have often thought that you have not truly earned your HR stripes until you have had to advise someone on how to have an awkward conversation with someone.  The HR team are often advising clients how to have these conversations and as a training team we run entire courses that we call “Courageous Conversations.”

There are many topics that are included in the ‘awkward list’, including someone not performing, someone who’s behaviour is not acceptable and by far the one people find most awkward is “how do I tell someone they have a personal hygiene problem?”.  To be fair it is often not put as politely as that, but you get the gist!

The reason that these, and other topics are awkward, is that as humans we do not want to offend someone else.  We all have the skill of empathy (some more than others) and can imagine how it may feel to be on the receiving end of such a conversation.  We do not want to upset the other person, damage the relationship or even worse have a reaction we do not know how to deal with.

Basically, as long as you remember the above you are half way there.  By this I mean really think through how you are going to broach the subject, which will be different depending on the person you need to have that conversation with.

Do you think they will be upset, angry, in denial?

Allow time to have the conversation, in fact allow much longer than you are expecting – as having to dash off and leave the person mid-emotion will only do damage.  Think through what you are going to say and run through the conversation in your head and think about how you would react if you were the other person.  Make sure that you can explain the impact of the issue in hand, have examples and if relevant relate back to relevant policies or ways of working (e.g. if performance then refer to targets or KPIs, if behaviour the company values). This is why we always say that having informative and detailed policies in place will be of benefit. They will help you stay on track with the conversation and help give you a basis for having the discussion.

Now, as for the conversation around personal hygiene, we appreciate that is one that none of us want to have, but equally, it needs to be done.  There can of course be many reasons for this, which can include health issues and in one case with a client it turned out the person’s washing machine had broken, and they could not afford to replace.  They were doing their best to handwash clothes, but it was not working – this was not the response the client was expecting.  However, the client’s response and support made that conversation hugely effective and the employee really appreciated this. So, one very important aspect in having difficult discussions is to keep an open mind and don’t predetermine the response.

One last, and very important point to make, as sadly we have heard this…. the answer is not to buy the person toiletries for every Birthday / Christmas or leave deodorant on their desk!

As the core of everything we do at Gateway HR, it’s “all about people” and everyone is unique, so conversation should be handled with this in mind, always.

About the Author: Emma Wynne

Emma Wynne
Emma is Gateway HR & Training's Founder and CEO and has over 20 years experience in people management and development. Emma has an MA in Human Resource Management, has lectured for the University of Northampton and the CIPD at Masters degree level and has presented at conferences across the UK.