A Talk for all Season

By Paul Falcone Jun 1, 2002
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HR Magazine, June 2002 How to address bad hair days, bad breath and other uncomfortable workplace matters.

Talking to employees about inappropriate dress, body art or foul smells doesn’t top the list of any manager’s favorite things to do. In fact, managers often steer clear of these issues, hoping that the problem will just disappear by itself. You have probably seen one of these variations on a theme before: Several of your staff members come to see you because a longtime co-worker has developed body odor or halitosis. Or perhaps an individual arrives at work with her hair in a mess looking like she just got out of bed. Maybe a subordinate’s face has a new, prominent piercing, or maybe a visible tattoo is being shown off to make a statement.

What are your responsibilities to your immediate subordinates, yourself and to the rest of your staff when it comes to uncomfortable workplace situations? More importantly, what do you say to fix the problem without insulting or embarrassing your staff?

Bad Hair Days

Publicly shaming or ridiculing an individual only will create resentment and anger. The goal of any management response in situations like these is to ensure that the person is treated with dignity and respect. So here’s how to address the first scenario, bad hair days, by making light of the situation and using a little humor:

“Leslie, come see me in my office for a few minutes. I have to share something with you, and I don’t want to hurt your feelings or embarrass you in any way. This is private—just between the two of us. Leslie, it’s your hair. … Something’s either happening too much to it or not happening enough. Have you been to Flo’s Hair Palace recently? You’re making a bit of a statement because it’s looking rather ‘severe,’ if you don’t mind me saying so. I thought it would be a good idea to address it with you quietly before anyone else seems to notice.”

Typically you will find some nervous shuffling along with an apology: “Oh, Paul, I woke up and went to the gym and didn’t have time to comb it out the way I normally do. I’ll run to the restroom right now and fix it and make sure that I come to work dressed for work from now on—including my hair. I’m sorry about that. Did anyone else say anything? I’m so embarrassed!”

Body Piercing

OK, that was easy enough—a very common scenario with a predictable outcome. Now onto a little more challenging situation: Assume that your customer service manager walks in one day with a new ring in his eyebrow and a metal post in his tongue. After you gasp and think, “He can’t service customers looking like that!” you devise a way to position your message so that he arrives at that same conclusion himself:

“Michael, I need to talk with you privately about your fashion decision. First, let me say that I don’t mean to embarrass you in any way. I respect you as a person, and I don’t mean at all to dictate what you do in your personal life. But I have to ask you: Are you sure that you have given sufficient thought to your eyebrow ring and tongue post in terms of how they might affect the customers you serve in our bank? Knowing that this kind of look might alienate some of our customers, would you be willing to remove them while you’re at work? Or would you consider removing them whenever you have to deal with the public? What are your thoughts?”

The value to this approach lies in its subtlety and reasonableness. Few companies have policies restricting facial hair on men or insisting that women wear dresses in the office. Still, body piercing tends to result from revelations and epiphanies of what’s cool, what’s important in life and what rights people believe they have over their own destinies. In short, it’s not something to brush over lightly.

If your conversation leads to some kind of compromise where the employee agrees to leave the hardware at home or to take it off whenever dealing with customers, then you’ll have accomplished your goal. Employees who feel they have been treated respectfully and not simply been told what to do will almost always agree to some kind of modification, which will please the company and allow them to maintain their individuality.

Tattoos

Eyebrow rings and tongue posts are removable. Tattoos aren’t. (At least not for the sake of this article.) How would you address the ankle bracelet tattoo or back-of-the-neck black widow tattoo that seems about ready to climb into the employee’s hair? The phraseology may be different, but the strategy is the same: Discuss your concerns openly, listen to the individual’s side of the story, and then look for some resolution or compromise that you can both live with:

“Eileen, a few of the staff members brought to my attention that you had received some new tattoos over the weekend. I respect the fact that you have the right to do body art, but as the nursing supervisor in the intensive care unit, I’m a little concerned about how some of our patients might respond. I wanted to talk with you and see if we could find a way to keep your desire to express yourself with minimal impact on the patients and their families who come to us for care. What are your initial thoughts about that?”

Once again, the majority of people will offer alternatives that minimize the problem in the workplace: “Maybe I’ll wear pants rather than a dress to cover the ankle tattoo.” Or, “I’ll wear blouses with collars so that patients won’t be able to see the spider tattoo on my neck.” And there you have it—a reasonable approach begets a reasonable response.

Body Odor

Suppose your subordinates meet with you en masse to complain that a co-worker’s odor is making the workplace intolerable. Odors come from bad breath, garlicky diets, insufficient personal hygiene, too many wears before a wash and sometimes from chronic medical conditions like obesity or colostomy bags. These conversations are a little trickier because they’re not necessarily something your employee can physically control. In addition, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may govern these matters, so it may be more than workplace sensitivity; it may be a matter of law.

First, a caveat about the ADA: As a civil rights-oriented, anti-discrimination law intended to bring disabled employees into the workplace and to keep disabled employees in the workplace, its remedies can include punitive damages, so be careful. In addition to defining a “disability” as a physical or mental impairment (or record of such an impairment) that substantially limits one or more major life activities, the ADA also covers individuals who are “regarded as having” an impairment. In other words, even if no “disability” technically exists, a plaintiff’s lawyer could argue that you, the employer, regarded the employee as having a disability and that your company was therefore governed by the act.

Finally, in preparing for any workplace discussions with your employees regarding physical or mental conditions that may be governed by the ADA, remember that the law does not merely prohibit discrimination against the disabled. It imposes additional affirmative obligations on employers to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities and to facilitate their economic independence.

Proceed this way:

“Joan, I need to make you aware of a situation that’s come to my attention, and I’ll need your help to solve it. A few of your co-workers came to me out of concern for you but also out of concern for themselves. Apparently there is an odor coming from your desk/office that makes it difficult for them to approach you. The odor is described as being a combination of sweat and urine, and apparently this is the third time that they have noticed it. It’s happening about the same time every month, and they have asked me to address it with you. You don’t need to share any specifics with me regarding the cause. I’d rather you address some possible solutions with me, assuming that you agree that this could be a problem.”

Expect the employee to identify some underlying cause for the medical problem, but you may want to stop her before she gets too far. Under the ADA, you’re not obligated to accommodate a disability that you’re unaware of, so the fewer details you have, the less you have to “accommodate.” (Remember, though, that you can’t refuse to hear about the condition solely to limit your legal exposure if the employee truly wants to share it with you.) So after she shares that her monthly cycle aggravates her problem, ask her how she could resolve the matter. “Well, I’ll make a doctor’s appointment for tomorrow and see how this can be solved.”

Medical intervention is the only real direction in which an employer can lead an employee under these circumstances. Just be sure and close your conversation this way: “Joan, you just take care of yourself. If you need time off, or if your doctor recommends any special considerations that we can help you with, just let us know. We’re all concerned about you and want to make sure you’re OK.”

Practically speaking, you will have demonstrated care and compassion to an employee in need of your help. That’s what good management is all about. Legally speaking, you will have begun the process of fulfilling your obligation under the law to engage in an interactive process with the employee to determine an appropriate accommodation, if one is applicable.

Dealing with Outright Refusals

“Nine out of 10 times, employees will respond reasonably to your request if your presentation is respectful and appreciative of people’s differences. In a way, that’s what diversity is all about,” says Caroline Galbraith, director of human resources in the Los Angeles office of accounting and consulting firm BDO Seidman LLP. “I can’t recall many times where employees didn’t respond favorably to such an understanding approach.” However, there can be an occasional instance where a subordinate chooses to make a stand over a hairdo, eyebrow ring or tattoo. “If, for some reason, the employee totally refuses to engage in a dialogue with you, and if you have a legitimate business reason for disallowing a nose ring or tattoo, then you may be within your rights to terminate the individual,” contends Galbraith.

Termination may be a bit extreme, but depending on your industry and culture, it may be the only plausible outcome. Most states recognize the at-will employment arrangement, and “at-will” means that companies can let go of employees for any reason or for no reason at all with or without cause or notice. The only catch is that you can’t let go of an employee for an unlawful reason. “Body piercing and tattoos are not ‘protected categories’ under the law,” according to Frank Melton, labor and employment litigation partner with the Los Angeles law firm of Rintala Smoot Jaenicke and Rees LLP. “It would not be unlawful to dismiss an employee who refuses to comply with policies on personal appearance which have a legitimate business basis and are consistently enforced. Still, it is a good idea to discuss such terminations with qualified legal counsel before proceeding.” (For more information on at-will employment, see the Management Tools column in the May issue of HR Magazine.)

By using these tools, you will have risen to the occasion and addressed workplace issues where many mortals fear to tread. That’s what makes companies unique and what turns managers into leaders who stand out among their peers.

Paul Falcone is director of employment and development at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood, Calif. He is the author of four books published by AMACOM, including The Hiring and Firing Question and Answer Book (2001), 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems: A Guide to Progressive Discipline and Termination (1999) and 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire (1997). This article represents the views of the author solely as an individual and not in any other capacity.

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