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Growth Strategies

The Esquire Guy's Guide to Uncomfortable Conversations

Magazine Contributor
Articles Editor, GQ magazine
min read

This story appears in the July 2013 issue of . Subscribe »

Key Technical Matters
When attempting to address behavior issues with an employee, the corrective sandwich is a common approach:



The corrective open-face sandwich is an awful approach:


The corrective salad is even worse:


However you decide to do it …

Never address an etiquette issue in front of other people.

Never address an etiquette issue on a Monday morning.

Never address an etiquette issue on a Friday afternoon.

You may point to the policy.

But please don't point to the policy.

And please don't take the policy off the wall and hand it to the employee for further study.

And easy on the tsk.


What to do when one of your staffers has poor etiquette, poor hygiene, poor appearance--offenses that don't warrant a firing but just aren't appropriate? What do you tell the person, if anything?

Business is awkward. Even everyday business is awkward. "Stan, listen, we can't abide this price increase." Awkward. "Jessica, come with me, I want you to meet someone. He's important." Awkward. "Bob, since you're going to the snack machine, can you get me a bag of Cheez-Its?" Awkward. "Also, Bob, you might want to consider ironing your pants." Oof.

In business--as in life--there are two kinds of awkward conversations: those in which awkwardness can be eliminated and those in which awkwardness can be mitigated. This is going to be about the latter. Because a conversation in which you must correct the behavior or appearance of a fellow adult will inevitably be uncomfortable. Any professional discussion of a personal issue will involve personal humiliation. Telling an employee who wears too much cologne that all that cologne is giving everyone a headache is the same as walking up to the person on the sidewalk and saying, "Seriously, what's with the cologne? What's wrong with you?" It's a slap in the face. It's embarrassing.

The key is in minimizing embarrassment. And the only way to do that is to make this not about the person whose behavior you're correcting or the person doing the correcting (you), but about the business.

Common Approaches
First, let's consider two commonly employed approaches to behavior correction: the sandwich and the pivot.

The sandwich involves a criticism delivered between two messages of praise: "You're doing a great job on the social media. Of course, you snap at people, and in order to move up at the company, you need to work on that. Another thing: nice socks."

Then there's the pivot: "I really like how aggressive you were in that sales pitch. Speaking of aggressive, sometimes you snap at people, and that's not cool." The pivot is really just an open-face sandwich.

Illustrations© Chris Philpot
Illustrations© Chris Philpot

The problem with the sandwich and the pivot (not to mention the rare pivot sandwich) is that any attempt to lessen the impact only confuses the point. And since confusion always begets awkwardness, you've made an awkward situation even more awkward. So don't be confusing. Be direct. Be clear about the problematic behavior and the reason it's problematic. Keep in mind that the reason the behavior is a problem is, ultimately, because the behavior is bad for business.

"I always make a clear distinction between things that don't work in a business environment and personal character criticisms. I say, 'There's nothing wrong with fill-in-the-blank, but in this environment it's having a negative impact,'" says Tracy DiNunzio, CEO of Tradesy, a fashion resale site and app.

That approach is putting the manager and the employee on the same side of things, and the company on the other side. What you're doing is throwing the company under the bus. Companies are useful that way. They won't get upset about it.

But if the sandwich and the pivot don't work, what does? David Weiman, a Philadelphia-based management psychologist and consultant, offers this scenario: "Point out the situation. 'You guys were walking through the reception area.' Point out the behavior. 'You were using profanity in front of the client.' Point out the impact. 'That did not portray this company in a very professional light.' Then pause [and] let them say whatever they have to say. You don't want people to feel persecuted."

Maybe they'll apologize. Maybe they'll take the opportunity to tell you that, well, they don't like how you cut your steak into little bites at lunch last week … so there.

What About a Policy?
What you're heading toward, of course, is a set of rules that will govern behavior. Guidelines. A binder of regulations that no one will read until you point out a violation. A policy. But policies are tricky--especially for young companies. "It's hard to write policies around things like behavior without going too far to the other side, where suddenly you have a dress code. And that's not the environment a lot of small businesses want," DiNunzio says.

You also have to be mindful of the law. Says Deb Cohen, senior vice president of knowledge development for the Society for Human Resource Management: "You have to be careful if someone has a hygiene issue, because it could be a medical condition that's causing it, something the individual can't control. You have to figure out how to accommodate that. You always have to be mindful of the law and not be discriminatory. Even if you think it's something simple, like the way they're dressed. Federal and even local legislation have regulations [regarding] appearance."

The Preemptive Correction
Behavior is connected to values. And values are a difficult thing to correct. The best way to mitigate this kind of awkwardness is to hire people who already share your company's values--or at least are willing to adopt them. "If you describe the kind of environment you're trying to create and what your values are, and inquire about how the applicant feels about those same things … then it's clear," Weiman says.

You can say that you expect people to dress professionally. You can say that you expect a quiet office. You can say that you expect people with bad breath to have a mint. (Maybe don't lay out that expectation during the interview.) The point is, during that first conversation you can allow the other person to embrace, adapt or reject your values and the behavior that goes along with them before there's anything at stake, before any damage has been done--not to anyone's feelings, but to the business.

To Correct or Not to Correct?

Annoying office behaviors in need of correcting:

Wearing inappropriate clothing
Talking loudly and laughing on the phone
Hallway yoga
Impromptu mandolin practice
Excessive use of profanity
Disheveled clothing
Chewing with mouth open
Being late to meeting
Excessively long hugs

Annoying office behaviors that can go uncorrected:

Wearing unfashionable clothing
Snickering on the phone
Desk yoga
Impromptu air mandolin practice
Excessive use of "literally"
Disheveled outlook
Breathing with mouth open
Being late to monthly birthday celebration
Staring with pen and paper in hand ("Shh, I think he's brainstorming.")
Excessively long handshakes

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