How to Tell an Employee He Smells

As a business owner, you're going to have to deliver bad news every once in a while. Here's how to approach sensitive subjects without offending people.

By Dr. David G. Javitch

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

What's so great about good news? Simple--everyone likes it. Employers don't dread telling a worker they've done a great job. They don't fret over finding a tactful way to tell an employee that everyone in the office enjoys working with them.

But we all know the news isn't always good. Perhaps you have an employee who wears clothes that are too tight, one who constantly discusses a sensitive medical condition that makes other employees feel uncomfortable, or one who simply smells bad.

Upsetting employees can set in motion a negative cycle. They may begin to feel bad about themselves, question their ability to do the job or resent the person who delivered the news. Hearing bad news can also cause defensiveness that protects the recipient, yet prevents him or her from truly hearing the gist of the message. Feeling bad and not focusing on the point prevents them from turning something they don't want to hear into a positive outcome.

So how can you frame the news so that it's at least partially positive and therefore easier to hear and accept? First, determine whether the issue is one you could address without having to approach the offending employee directly. For instance, in the case of someone wearing clothes that are too tight or revealing, an e-mail to everyone in the company may suffice. You could say, "With summer approaching and everyone wanting to wear cooler clothes, I want to go over the company's dress policy." In the case of the smelly worker you could first send an e-mail that says, "We have some employees with very sensitive allergies. Please refrain from wearing perfume or scented lotion and try to keep your smell as neutral as possible." Maybe the culprit is some very unfortunate cologne.

If you do have to approach an employee individually, start with positive feedback before moving onto the negative comments and the request for change. This method should be brief and to the point.

For example, let's say that a worker comes to a team meeting unprepared and you want to say something about the situation. Beginning with a positive statement, you could say, "Juan, I really appreciate the work that you've been doing on this committee." Then state the negative: "This week I noticed you didn't seem as prepared as usual." End with a change statement: "I want to make sure you're fully prepared with data for the next meeting." Even offer to help create the solution: "Are you overwhelmed right now? Is there anything I can do to help you get ready for the next meeting?" This could also help you get to the root of the problem.

In more sensitive situations--like the one involving the smelly employee--be sure to stress that you're addressing the problem because you truly care. Start by saying you've noticed the person sometimes doesn't smell quite right. Quickly explain you're saying something because you want to help them find a solution--and help their career. Ask if everything is OK and if there's anything you can do to help. Maybe the person is a busy, newly single father and sometimes sacrifices showering, but didn't think other people noticed the smell. Or maybe the person has halitosis, but didn't realize there was medication he could be taking for it.

Concluding with a concrete suggestion of a change provides the recipient with a thought, action or attitude that can help him or her turn a negative situation into a positive one. In some situations, it's nearly impossible to avoid hurting someone's feelings. But once the person has time to reflect on the discussion and make a positive change, he may come to appreciate and respect your concern, honesty and tact.

Dr. David G. Javitch

Dr. David G. Javitch is an organizational psychologist, leadership specialist, and President of Javitch Associates in Newton, Mass. Author of How to Achieve Power in Your Life, Javitch is in demand as a consultant for his skills in assessment, coaching, training and facilitating groups and retreats.

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