March 31, 2009

How to handle sensitive issues in the workplace

A blog post about telling someone they need to look more professional at work got me thinking about the best way to handle sensitive issues in the workplace. A while back there was a company that got lots of media coverage about a service they provided. You called them if you had a workmate or friend with body odour, bad breath or dandruff and they would anonymously call the person and tell them. I’m not sure if the service ever took off or not, but there is probably still such services around.

I think I’d prefer someone to just tell me rather than hire an anon service. I suppose if an anon service called me I’d be paranoid that there was a group of 100 people that were horrified about my problem and got together to hire the service.

An example of a sensitive issue not handled well I’ve seen is that of an untidy, unpolished business owner telling a staff member that they desperately need a haircut. They were instructed to get one ASAP “because they are making the place look scruffy”. The staff member was really mad because this woman’s appearance was very scruffy and un-manicured. If she was well dressed and presented, he figured he would have got a haircut no problem and not been offended and annoyed. Instead it made his blood boil that she had the nerve to criticise his appearance when hers was so much more undesirable. (FYI his hair wasn’t the long messy look guys do these days – it was a normal ‘man cut’ that was obviously half a centimetre too long for her liking).

When I worked for a bank, there was a very regular customer whose body odour was so intense it smelt like pizza and would linger for hours after she left. It was truly, truly eye watering sitting with her. I can’t imagine how it could be addressed if she had of worked with us. It was obviously something medical and I don’t know if anything could have been done about it anyway.

Perhaps you have a problem you’ve identified with a staff member (or another member of the team brought it to your attention) that you need to address. If it’s a personal thing, you need to tread carefully. Plenty of bosses in this position before you have tried so hard to be tactful but instead really put their foot in it! Maybe make google your friend – it may offer some advice. Also, perhaps when mentioning the issue do so very casually.

I think this topic needs further exploration. Please share any experience you have of handling sensitive issues in the workplace – done well, done badly or just ignored. What tactics do you think bosses in this position should use?


Ralph.Stegemann said...

Is it just me, or does it seem that almost everything is a "sensitive" issue?

Why should a resource that is disruptive to the functionality or effectiveness of a business unit be left to “do there thing” without someone bring the issue to their attention. Why should anyone feel that they are “offending” an individual, when the action or behavior that is being addressed is offensive to the majority of the group? If it wasn’t out of the norm it would not attract attention or need to be addressed.

I have always believed in leading by example, groomed, attired and communicative in a way that I would expect members of my organization/team to emulate. Not that I am always perfect, far from it. But I try to do the best that can be done with what has been dealt to me and always try to look and act as professional as possible for a given situation. Ultimately the product that we all provide is ourselves. Our thoughts, actions and even appearance are what we offer in exchange for compensation.

If a resource is from a culture that does not practice personal hygiene on a regular basis, the issue needs to be addressed and not skirted, perceived medical issues not withstanding. If one is dealing with an individual that feels it necessary to advertise an allegiance or fascination with a subculture, that also needs to be handled. Contrary to some organizations that have achieved success with the mantra of “individual ness”, most of the developed global community believes in dressing for success and presenting ones self in as professional a manner as possible no matter what part of the planet you were raised on. That does not mean blue suits, black shoes and crew cuts. It means dressing, and grooming like you care about your appearance and presence to those that you interact with. Presenting an image of self worth and not looking like you slept in your attire after leaving an all night beach party or something less savory.

When you get down to the bottom line, we are all responsible for ourselves and to a degree those that are part of our circle of influence. We can tender guidance and assistance, but what is done with those offerings is up to the group or to the individual that they are bestowed upon.

One final note; I personally do not relish being thought of as a “boss” I am a manager. I manage resources be they human, mechanical or virtual. I try to deal with anyone that works with me as an equal in whatever it is we are engaged in and that generally creates a harmonious and productive group. I try to engage all members of a given team to converse openly and honestly about what we do and how we are doing it. Respect up and down the chain has been what I have found to be the key factor in creating harmonious, productive and successful environments.

Ralph Stegemann
Senior Consultant

Allison O'Neill said...

Thanks for your comments Ralph, you raise some great points. I think there is definitely room for a more black and white attitude - i.e. if an issue is distracting the team it should just be handled rather than worrying about it offending. Though I'm sure it could still be handled tactfully. Another point you make about open and honest communication (as well as respect both ways) is what workplaces really need, there are unfortunately plenty that are still old fashioned and hierachial - these need a lot of work to wake up and arrive in 2009.
Thanks so much for your insights :)