Awkward Work Conversations

by Melany Gallant | Posted | Communication

Awkward Work Conversations

Those conversations we’d rather not have…

We often go to great lengths to circumvent unpleasant conversations. Agreeing when we disagree. Laughing when we don’t find the joke or circumstance funny. Appeasing when we’d rather not conform.

Yet no matter how hard we try to prevent unpleasant conversations from happening, they are inevitable. The best thing to do is accept the reality, and understand that a little discomfort now, will save a lot of discomfort down the road.

With this thought in mind, we’ve compiled a short list of awkward/sensitive conversations we wish we wouldn’t have to have with a co-worker but sometimes have to.

Here’s what to say when…

Your co-worker has body odour

People can have body odour for many reasons. In some cases it’s simply a matter of hygiene neglect. However, medical conditions such as diabetes, anxiety, thyroid problems, and kidney and liver dysfunction can also be culprit. Also, person’s diet can produce excessive sweating, resulting in foul odour.

No doubt about it, body odour is a sensitive subject. If you work with someone with bad body odour, you should inform the individual in a way that won’t embarrass him. In this case, a face-to-face conversation may not be the gentlest route to take. Once you mention it, he may immediately become embarrassed or defensive. Instead, give him a call or write him an email.

Address the issue as kindly and genuinely as possible, focusing not on how the odour makes you feel but on how this issue should be dealt with for his own good. Offer your help. Chances are he won’t need it but at least he won’t feel alone in overcoming this issue. Be sure to listen to his response too. He may be genuinely surprised or have a legitmate reason for the odour.

If he becomes reactive, be empathetic and drive the point that you are only saying this to help him. And be sure you truly are saying it to help him and not to be vindictive or spiteful.

Your co-worker wears too much perfume/cologne

On the flip side, you may have a co-worker that overdoes it with the fragrances and this can be as bad as, or worse than body odour. The smell may be so overwhelming you nearly gag. Certainly, we’ve all been stuck in an elevator with that person.

Strong scents can also be particularly discomforting – or even harmful – to people with chemical sensitivities.

In this situation it’s better to be direct and approach the person with a kind, but matter-of-fact conversation. It can be as simple as saying “I think you wore too much perfume today.” This direct approach gives yoru co-worker the message that she needs to tone down how much perfume she applies.

Many organizations circumvent the issue altogether by implementing a No Scents is Good Sense policy, restricting the use of perfume/cologne in the workplace. If the situation becomes unbearable, consider approaching HR or management to implement such a policy in your workplace.

Your co-worker has bad breath

Odour seems to be a real damper on the workday! Similar to the body odour scenario, bad breath is a sensitive issue. If you’re going to approach the breath issue, do so in a gentle and discreet manner. Also, be aware that some people actually have a condition called halitosis, which causes them to have bad breath.

To tackle the situation politely, offer your co-worker gum or mints before meetings, after lunch, coffee breaks, etc. If part of a group, be sure to offer the gum or mints to everyone so as not to single any one person out.

If the person happens to be a smoker and coffee drinker, these items are a notorious combination for unpleasant breath. In cases like this, you can let the person know she has “coffee breath”, which is a less offensive way of asking her to do something about it.

Your co-worker talks too much

Whether they’re gossiping, pouring their heart out to you about emotional problems or just constantly interrupting you with random chit-chat, excessive talkers can be aggravating to deal with.

There are a several solutions for dealing with Mr. or Ms. Chatterbox.

1) Place a Do Not Disturb sign on your desk. If your co-worker still tries to engage you in conversation, let her know you are busy and would be happy to follow up at a later time. If possible, be specific as to when that time may be. If the she still tries to engage you in conversation, polity reiterate the above and turn back to your work. You may also want to…
2) Get yourself a set of noise-canceling headphones. This signals that you are in your work groove and do not want to be disturbed.
3) Ask management to change your desk location. A new workspace location – no longer in the immediate vicinity of the excessive talker – may make it less convenient for her to “swing by” your desk for a chat.
4) Be upfront with your co-worker. If it’s a work-related matter, ask her to set up a meeting with you so that you both have dedicated time to discuss the matter. If it’s not work-related, politely but firmly tell her that you are in the middle of something and that you will be available to talk on break or at lunch.

5) Seek help from your supervisor. If this person continuously interrupts your workday to chit-chat, chances are it’s also affecting the work of other employees. Discuss the situation with your supervisor and ask what might be done to create a performance-focused environment.

Honing Your Interpersonal Skills

When approaching someone with a sensitive issue like those mentioned above, empathy is key. Imagine what it would be like to be in their shoes and receive the news that they smell or talk too much. By demonstrating empathy during these tough conversations, you show that you are genuine, sincere and looking out for their best interests.

We go to great lengths to circumvent unpleasant conversations, but ultimately people respect those who are honest and have the courage to take action and confront issues directly. This is an interpersonal skill that can be awkward to develop, but engaging in these tough conversations in a supportive and non-confrontational manner can help you become a better communicator.

Have you ever had to bring up something difficult or embarrassing with someone you work with? How did you handle the situation? What was their reaction? Could you have approached it differently?

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