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Dealing With Difficult Conversations

How to handle difficult conversations……addressing an employee’s personal hygiene problem


All employees are human, so there will come a time during everyone’s employment when their personal issues will impact on the workplace in one way or another. It is also human nature, unfortunately, not to be able to get along harmoniously with all people all of the time; this can lead to complaints being raised about colleagues.


When an issue of a personal nature is raised, an employer can understandably find it difficult to talk to the subject about it and deal with it head-on. However, delaying and/or failing to do so could lead to a breach of a variety of legislation including the Flexible Working Regulations 2002 and the Equality Act 2010. A failure to deal with an employee’s grievance under the ACAS Code could also lead to various Employment Tribunal claims, including discrimination and/or constructive dismissal.


What about the scenario where an employee raises an informal complaint that his colleague’s personal hygiene is generally poor, he comes back from lunch every day smelling of alcohol and he is inappropriately aggressive after lunch. If the employer does nothing, his behaviour could get worse and/or impact upon other employees or clients. This could also create a precedent for other employees drinking at lunchtime and the complainant is obviously unlikely to be satisfied, which could lead to his resigning, etc.


The manager has the difficult role of raising this very personal issue with the employee. Here is an outline framework for structuring difficult conversations.


• Begin the conversation by explaining the purpose of the meeting – explain that an informal complaint has been made that you would like to discuss with him.
• You would like to hear what he has to say about this complaint generally, his reasons etc., then you will talk this through together and set some objectives (if appropriate).
• Adopt a calm and professional manner.
• Reassure him about confidentiality – the complainant will be updated, and the subject’s line manager will know about the complaint but otherwise you hope to keep the matter confidential.
• State what the issues are and give evidence. Tell him what the problem is using your knowledge of the situation – provide details of the complaint that has been raised.
• Give specific examples and refer to dates and specific interactions which form the basis of the complaint.
• Explain the impact the problem is having on the team and the organisation, including the business’ policy/expectations – explain that although the employer does not have a written alcohol and drugs policy, it expects employees to have a good level of personal hygiene, it does not expect employees to attend work displaying any signs of having consumed alcohol and it expects employees to speak to one another professionally and calmly, creating a harmonious working environment
• Listen to what he has to say – he could provide a variety of reasons for his behaviour: the complainant has a personal grudge against him; he thought 3 glasses of wine over lunch was acceptable because he has seen other employees drink this much; he has an alcohol problem; he has recently been diagnosed with a terminal illness and this is his way of dealing with it; he was not aware of his personal hygiene issue; he has halitosis or liver disease, which causes bad breath/odours; he had not noticed a difference in his behaviour in the afternoon; the examples provided of aggressive behaviour were specific incidents where his colleague had acted negligently, etc.
• Keep an open mind and don’t jump to conclusions – see the variety of reasons set out above!
• Acknowledge his position and any mitigating circumstances – consideration should be given to whether or not there are any protected characteristics such as disability. NB whilst alcoholism on its own does not qualify as a “disability” under the Equality Act 2010, an associated condition, such as liver disease could do so.
• If a new argument emerges, adjourn the meeting if this seems appropriate – for example, if he says that the complainant has raised this issue on discriminatory grounds, you may want to explore such accusation further before continuing the meeting.
• Agree a way forward. Ask the employee for proposals to resolve the situation – he may agree to meet with his doctor to ask for counselling regarding his alcoholism and to take steps to address his personal hygiene.
• Discuss the options.
• Make a decision.
• Arrange a follow up meeting.
• Monitor and feedback on progress.
• Continue to provide support where agreed.
• Provide a written copy of the agreed outcomes, any support or training to be provided and any consequences if the agreement is breached.


Of course, conversations such as these do not always go to plan and the direction of the meeting will depend on what the employee has to say, but this agenda should hopefully assist managers to maintain the direction of the meeting.


The importance of these conversations should not be underestimated. If employers get these conversations right, they could improve employee morale, integration, levels of engagement and performance. They could also put a useful marker in the sand should a separate discussion be appropriate regarding termination of employment, whether this be via the formal disciplinary process (ACAS Code) or the without prejudice route (compromise/settlement agreements).

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