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How to approach embarrassing personal issues with employees

By 04/04/2017August 8th, 2023Employee Wellbeing

If there’s one HR issue that strikes fear into the hearts of managers the world over, it’s dealing with embarrassing employee personal issues.

Considered by many to be far more challenging than a disciplinary, tackling staff problems that are highly personal is an unsavoury task that is laden with opportunities to make things worse. There are few HR meetings that call on the same mix of compassion, authority and tactility, which is why so many managers – experienced or otherwise – end up making costly errors.

Personal issues are as wide as they are complex, with the most common including:

• Personal hygiene
• Family issues
• Employee relationships
• Work attire and choice of body art
• Mental health issues
• Life choices

The types of issues above are inherently difficult to approach, because they are either deeply personal to the employee in question or unknown to them. If it’s the latter, the reason you’re having to speak to them about it is usually because others are aware of the issue.

It would be fair to argue that the main trepidation felt by a manager when approaching a personal issue is the knowledge that the employee has little or no knowledge of the effect they are having on the business and their colleagues. And that effect can be quite profound; personal hygiene problems might drive other employees out of the business, while mental health issues could result in the employee being singled out by others and subjected to abuse.

The good news is that there are ways to approach embarrassing personal issues at work in a manner which will result in a positive outcome for all. Below, we’ve put together some simple steps you can use when dealing with such problems which will help settle your nerves and increase the chances of the employee reacting positively.

Learn everything you can from those who have highlighted the issue

Speak to everyone you’re aware of who knows about the issue, before speaking to the employee in question. Do so in confidence and make it clear that you aim to address the problem swiftly and in a manner that will benefit everyone.

During this investigative phase, keep in mind that the truth may be a little hard to come by. Certain people will stretch the facts and rely entirely on their own opinion of the matter which may or may not be helpful. Regardless, play a neutral role and gather as much information and background as you can – it’ll come in handy once you speak to the employee at the centre of the issue.

Be aware of cultural norms and differences

Some personal issues may be directly driven by elements of an employee’s culture, which makes tackling them very challenging.

However, if you’re aware of cultural norms and differences in the way certain cultures will approach elements of personal and working life, you can be more sensitive to them. Again, this knowledge will help you significantly when you meet with the employee and enables you to display compassion and respect for their culture.

Arrange a meeting with the employee and keep it informal

Once you have all of the facts to hand and are aware of any potential cultural differences, it’s time to speak to the employee.

This is by far the stage you’ll approach with the most trepidation, but there’s a great technique you can use to settle your nerves and stage a meeting that offers the best possible chance of a positive outcome.

The key here is to keep it informal. If you can, arrange it away from the business premises over lunch and in a location that offers plenty of privacy. If that isn’t possible, use a meeting room, but make sure you set the tone right from the start. That means taking the opportunity to ask the employee for a brief chat when you next pass by them (again, away from prying eyes) and avoiding the temptation to offer any kind of hint as to the reason for the meeting.

Be clear and tell them straight

As tempting as it might be to dance around the topic, it is far better to be clear, honest and straight from the outset. Explain why the meeting has been called and jump straight to the issue at hand.

This is by far the hardest part of the meeting, and you’ll need a significant amount of courage to do so without displaying nerves. However, if you breathe consistently, speak clearly and do so with open body language and a reassuring smile, you’ll stand a far better chance of delivering the news in a positive manner.

Whatever you say, it’ll be a surprise to the employee and they’ll react in a number of ways. Some will be angry, others highly embarrassed while some might laugh it off. No matter how they respond, retain that open body language and avoid the temptation to dive back in forcefully.

Let them talk

You’ve set the scene, so now it’s time for the employee to talk and tell you their side of the story.

Give them as much time as they need. Some people will need a little encouragement to speak up, while others will welcome the chance to get something off their chest. Again, no matter how they respond or how long it takes them to do so, maintain your compassionate stance and desire to hear them out.

Highlight the effect the issue is having on the business

When all is said and done, you’re representing the business during this meeting, and the reason you’re having to address the issue is because it is having a tangible, negative effect on the organisation.

Just like the issue itself, you need to tackle the business impact head-on. That means highlighting clearly the effect the employee is having on the business. There’s no need to lump the world on their shoulders, either, because the simple method of highlighting the business impact of an issue is usually enough to make people stand up and take note.

Remember – it’s highly unlikely the employee is aware of the impact they’re having, so expect a degree of surprise when you tell them.

Reiterate how important they are to the business

The last thing you want to do is lose a member of staff following a meeting of this kind, but there’s no doubting that they will be at quite a low ebb following it.

For this reason, it’s vital that you reiterate how important they are to the business. In the great scheme of things, this issue is relatively minor, but it needs addressing. More importantly, if it’s addressed correctly, both the business and employee can go onto bigger, better things.

Make the employee feel wanted by highlighting how important it is that the issue is resolved so that everyone can move on.

Take responsibility for as positive outcome

Here’s where you can turn the tables and point the spotlight on yourself, rather than the employee.

As the employee’s manager, you can take responsibility for a positive outcome, and in doing so, you’ll remove the weight of the world from their shoulders.

Once they understand that it isn’t solely down to them, they’ll feel supported, and that’s the only way to work towards a positive outcome for such an issue.

Offer help

Now that you’ve taken responsibility for a positive outcome, it’s essential that you offer the right kind of help and support.

Depending on the issue in hand, that may mean an investment in professional help or a more personal offer of support. Whatever it is, end the meeting with a clear and unrelenting offer of help. It might not be taken straight away, but it’s important that it’s one of the main takeaways from the meeting as far as the employee is concerned.

Final thoughts

The above steps won’t guarantee a comfortable meeting, nor will they prevent the employee from reacting poorly, but if you follow each one, you’ll have done everything you can to offer the best support for what is one of the most challenging scenarios you’ll encounter as a manager.