'You stink' - the worst thing a line manager has to tell a member of staff

Frankly, it's even easier to fire them!

A few years back I was working in a fairly senior role in a big well-known bank. I was aware that one of the staff had a body odour problem, but acting exactly like the member of senior management I then was, I choose to ignore it (after all, I didn't have to sit anywhere near her).

Things got real bad one summer, however. During a heat wave, the staff used fans to cool down (there was no air-conditioning at that time), and several downwind of their stinking colleague soon ended up in rebellion. The Operations Manager came up to me and officially told me of the problems the issue was now causing in back office.

'But you're the Ops guy', I pointed out, 'It's down to you. Just tell her she stinks'.

'I can't', he replied, 'I'm not up to it'.

After a slight pause, I realised I had to do the deed and clean up our act.

'OK', I said, 'I'll do it Monday'.

And that weekend I went home and practised the scenario on my girlfriend, hoping to somehow get the words out so that I could get the message across yet allow the female staffer to retain some dignity.

The first thing on the Monday, I called the Ops manager.

'Send her up'.

'Hi Jean' (clearly not her real name), I said when she arrived. 'Come in, and close the door' (Not a good move).

'Well, Jean', I began, 'What I'm about to say to you is as difficult for me to say as it will no doubt be difficult for you to hear. On occasion, you appear to have what I can only describe as a personal hygiene problem'.

I then stopped, waiting for Jean to cry, have a fit or assault me. Instead there was nothing. Radio silence. She didn't say a word.

So, nervous as I was, I waded back in.

'I notice that you are always one of the first in the office, Jean, and I wonder if that's part of the problem. Maybe you aren't spending enough time attending to those areas which clearly need it ?'.

At last, Jean spoke up:

'But why did you have to tell me ? Why didn't my friends here tell me ?'.

'Well, Jean, I guess it's because they are your friends that they found it difficult to tell you', I replied.

I thanked Jean for making a difficult conversation easy for me, and I then told her to go home, sort herself out and come back after lunch. And when she did return to the office, she was smelling of roses - and did so for several months.

A few months later, we crossed on the stairs and I got a blast of body odour as she passed.

'Jean', I said, 'Remember that chat we had earlier this year ?'.

She raised her eyebrows, I nodded and she went off to the ladies to clean herself up. There was never a problem again.

As I look back on this experience several years later, I realise now that I should have dealt with the problem a lot sooner, and that my black humour at the time was inappropriate. However the conversation itself was fairly professional, and the end result was what we wanted.

But it was probably the most difficult thing I ever had to do in management.

image: © Kevin Rawlings

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