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  • 20 August 2020
  • 4 years

Four Steps for Addressing Sensitive Topics with Employees

Staff Writer

How to address sensitive topics with employees?

Janet attended an Ivy League college and earned her MBA. As a new manager, however, she found herself facing an issue that had never been covered in her classes. Several members of her team were complaining about a coworker’s body odor and Janet needed to intervene.

Managers will tell you that addressing sensitive issues with employees is a common job function, albeit not one typically included in a job description. Other potentially difficult conversations involve dress code violations, disheveled appearance, poor grammar, unclean workspace, or food odors, just to name a few.

While avoiding the topic may be more comfortable for the manager, it can hurt overall morale and potentially lead to staff turnover. Therefore, it’s important for managers to learn how to have difficult conversations with employees in emotionally healthy ways. Below are four suggested steps to help managers prepare.

Step One: Think beyond the presenting problem.

First, a manager should consider whether the issue could be a symptom of a larger problem. Questions to ask include the following:

  • Is the employee missing work more frequently or arriving late?
  • Has performance declined?
  • Are there signs of a low mood?
  • Has the employee experienced a major life change?

If the answer is yes to any of the above, the manager should recognize that the employee may be struggling with an emotional health issue. In this scenario, a manager may want to first discuss the situation with the human resources (HR) representative before addressing it with the employee.

Step Two: Prepare for action.

It’s important that the manager thinks through exactly what needs to be communicated to the employee and stick to those points. This should include how the behavior is impacting others, the desired behavior, and the consequences if the behavior does not change.

Keeping in mind that body language and tone of voice are an important part of the communication triangle, the manager should also consider how to best communicate empathy and respect during the encounter.

Practicing the conversation ahead of time with a member of HR or a professional mentor is recommended if the manager feels anxious. Some employers provide access to manager support programs, where counselors can guide managers through challenging situations. If this resource is available, it can be very helpful.

Step Three: Meet with the employee.

Sensitive conversations with employees should always take place in a private setting, although it is acceptable in some situations to involve an HR representative or an additional manager.

It is best to be straight forward, focusing on the key points developed in step two. The employee should be given an opportunity to share relevant feedback and offer potential solutions to the problem. Once the manager has listened to the feedback, the next steps can be discussed. This may involve providing resources to help the employee make the desired change. By the end of the conversation, the employee should have a clear understanding of

  • what behavior needs to change and why
  • the new behavior that is expected
  • resources available (if any) to assist the employee in meeting expectations
  • timeline for meeting expectations
  • consequences of not meeting expectations
  • date and time for follow-up

It is suggested that managers document their conversations, even if it is not required by their HR departments.

Step Four: Have a follow-up conversation.

During the follow-up meeting, the manager should note to what degree expectations are being met. If the employee has been successful in adopting the new behavior, it’s important to recognize that accomplishment and convey appreciation. On the other hand, if the change is sporadic or non-existent, then ongoing actions as identified in the initial meeting are required.

It is understandable that managers may be reluctant to discuss difficult topics with their employees. It can be awkward for both the manager and the employee. However, handling the situation skillfully and with sensitivity, not only benefits the department, but it is also in the employee’s best interest as well.

Workplace Options helps employees balance their work, family, and personal needs to become healthier, happier, and more productive, both personally and professionally. The company’s world-class employee support, effectiveness, and wellbeing services provide information, resources, referrals, and consultation on a variety of issues ranging from dependent care and stress management to clinical services and wellness programs. To learn more visit

This article is for information purposes only. Managers should consult their HR department for specific instructions and policies related to employee discipline.

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