Human Resources News & Insights

Test your HR knowledge: Difficult conversations

“Difficult conversations” are called that for good reason. Whatever the topic – personal hygiene, performance, behavior – it’s difficult to discuss with an employee. To test your knowledge of the best ways to hold a difficult conversation, respond True or False to the following:

(Answers at the bottom.)

1. When there’s problem with an employee, you shouldn’t address it right away. Wait a while to see if the problem works itself out before scheduling a conversation.

2. If you’re in a conversation with an employee who starts to rant, you should cut it off immediately and warn the employee to stop.

3. Nothing you say to an employee can be “off the record” – that is, all statements are considered official and can be used against you if the employee later files a complaint or questions your decisions.


1. False. Your inclination may be to put off the conversation in the hope that (a) the problem solves itself or (b) the employee takes a turn for the better. Neither is likely, so it’s best to address the problem as soon as possible.

2. False. It’s OK to let employees vent a little. Sometimes that’s what they need to do. Just try to avoid letting the rant become the whole conversation – you need to move on to a solution – and don’t tolerate threats from employees.

3. True. You should consider everything you say to be official and part of your capacity as a supervisor. You can’t use the loophole that “this is just between us.” For instance, a supervisor might say, “Confidentially, I really don’t mind if people come in late once in a while.” Then, later when the employee habitually comes in late, he can always say, “But you said you didn’t mind.”

Print Friendly

Subscribe Today

Get the latest and greatest Human Resources news and insights delivered to your inbox.


  1. We had to tell an employee she had a hygiene issue after about 5 other employees complained that her odor made them physically ill. That was a difficult conversation to have without really hurting her feelings. It’s always best to be honest, kind and straightforward.

  2. Kellie, that had to have been the most uncomfortable conversation to have with an employee. It’s an issue at our company with someone and I’d like to know how you handled it.

  3. I had to deal with that issue a few months ago and the first step I took was to copy our dress code/hygiene policy and remind people the importance of daily cleaning, no strong perfumes, ect. I emailed this to the whole company and have not had any problems yet. My next step will be to actually sit down and discuss it with the employee.

  4. When I was in China, I had a college student with this problem. Because we were friends, I asked her about how often she bathed. Since she came from the village, they only did it once a week.

    In another instance, I have known people with sensitivities/allergens to soaps, etc.. I use a Hypo-Allergenic soap myself. Others sweat profusely or have thyroid problems which may be indicators of other health issues.

    It’s important to keep in mind that we may not notice our own body odors because we are used to our smells. The culprit usually doesn’t know it is him/her.

    It’s always easier as a friend to say “Have you tried this deodorant? or perfume?” On the other hand, some cultures view odor differently than Americans do.

    Mainly, it comes from the food we eat and ends up in our pores – underarms, breath and feet.

    Best advice, come off in a caring and sincere manner that you want to help this person and avoid office gossip, finger pointing, nicknames and out-casting. You may want to start gradually to befriend the person for a week to see if you notice it and then casually bring it up.

  5. I had to have the hygene converstaion with an employee a few years ago. He had a habit of not showering and wearing the same uniform to work day in and day out without laundering, to make matters worse, he was a messy eater, and his white shirt was the “ghosts of lunches past”.

    The problem reached it’s peak on a humid summer morning. One of my other employees pointed out that this young man had a temporary tattoo on his arm that had been there for a week. The tattoos were a promotional item, for us to hand out to our younger patrons, and I was told they’d come right off with soap and water… and his was still nice and bright like the day it was applied.

    I pulled him back into the office to talk to him. I mentioned to him that his uniform shirt was looking a little worse for wear, pointing out the food stains. I asked him when it was washed last. His answer: “I don’t remember”. I then lightly pointed out, “If you don’t know when you washed it last, it’s been too long.” I then mentioned that we had had a few complaints about his hair (a lion would be jealous of this mane). I said, “I know it’s summer and everyone’s hot and sweating… have you considered smoothing your hair back in a ponytail?” I then mentioned that he needed to take a little more time to work on his appearance before reporting to work, and that if he needed me to move his start time back by a half hour, I’d be willing to do so to help him out. He told me it wouldn’t be necessary, and he’d work something out.

    He had the next two days off, but when he returned, he looked completely different. Uniform spotless and pressed, hair pulled back, and not a hint of body odor. After that, I never had to say another word to him.

  6. I supervised a group of women typists that sat in a circular open work center. Several ladies complained to me about the smell from one of their co-workers. How embarrassing as a male boss. The group had set up air fresheners and sprayed Lysol but the message was never acknowledged so I had to speak to her. I asked the lady to stay a few minutes late after the day was over then we went to a side conference room where no one would see us. I wanted to provide as much privacy and dignity as I could. I asked if everything was OK at work and at home trying to get the conversation started and to see if there was something else. After all seemed OK I then told her that there had been a few complaints about her hygiene and asked her if was aware of this. When she pointed at her lip and asked if I was talking about her mustache I almost lost it. I kept my focus and without hesitation I told her “No, it was her body odor”. She was heavy set and did say that she had perspiration problems but she said that she was aware and would take care of it. I thanked her for her understanding and told her how much I appreciated her hard work. That by taking care of this she could be better prepared for advancement. The problem improved but never went away and she eventually left for another job. I often wonder if it was the pear pressure of the group avoiding her or if I had made her more self conscience.

  7. It’s interesting as this can also tie into religious practices, making it even more difficult. Early in my career, this happened with someone who was eating something that smelled really bad at her desk, infiltrating the whole area. We had to stop her from eating at her desk and at least doing so in the kitchen. A helpful item I find with this and in general is to have a handbook that covers the bases. That way, when you have a difficult conversation, you can ultimately pull the “this is clearly stated in the EE handbook that you signed off on” trump card if you have to. It makes things like dress code items, cleanliness and such a bit easier. Religious discrimination items such as my lunch example are a bit more challenging and I try to make an accomodation in those (luckily rare) instances.

  8. I have had to deal with an employee also. I did not try to determine the cause or make any assumptions. I did explain to her that she may not have realized that she had body odor that was affecting the office. I did indicate some suggestions based on other women I knew. Some have to refresh themselves several times a day using a wetwipe and deordorant, , others found it necessary to change deodorants periodically. Also I was aware of other instances when medical attention was necesary because of hormone issues.

    I assured her that this conversation was confidential. While the conversation may have been uncomfortable, she by no means is the only person who has had to deal with
    this. I also indicated that I was sure she would take care of this.

    She did return later to advise me that her problem was a medical one which had been addressed.

  9. Conversations about hygiene and personal appearance will always be difficult. I would say however that as managers, how we approach the subject makes all the difference in the world. No matter what I have to say to an employee, I always put myself in their position and I try to think of how I would want someone to approach me on the same subject matter. Tact. Diplomacy. Two words which can make all the difference in how what we have to say is received by the employee.

  10. Kimberly says:

    Working in HR, I have had to deal with these types of situations on a number of occasions. A couple of suggestions I would give are: 1. try to have a female talk to female and male to male, 2. Avoid saying ‘a number of complaints’ but rather indicate that someone came to you with ‘a’ concern. The former leaves them feeling like many people have complained thus escalating their embarrassment. 3. Discuss that you received a concern with odour and then quickly move to solutions… are you ensuring that you are washing enough and using deodorant. (something that is not always a given depending on the culture they came from) (also don’t encourage them to use perfume or you will be having another discussion a week later) and 4. Acknowledge that you know that this is embarrassing for them (inevitably they will be quite embarrassed no matter how you say it) so acknowledge it and say it is ok, the team member that raised the concern will keep it in confidence as will this entire conversation. That is the best you can do in a tough situation.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by HRMorning, Sandra Young. Sandra Young said: Test your HR knowledge: Difficult conversations […]

Speak Your Mind