Tips for Handling Sensitive Issues in the Workplace

Even the most seasoned managers can get quite uncomfortable when they have to speak to an employee about a very sensitive topic. It can be extremely awkward for both parties to discuss private issues such as an office romance, inappropriate dress, personal hygiene, substance abuse, bullying or bereavement. These sensitive topics must be addressed when they begin to negatively impact the employee’s performance or affect the morale of other employees. How should you best handle these situations while still maintaining the employee’s dignity? What are the best practices surrounding difficult discussions and how can you make these conversations a little less unpleasant?

Don’t Look the Other Way
Ignoring the issue won’t make it disappear and if it lingers too long, it can lead to office gossip or embarrassment for the employee, particularly if a co-worker confronts the employee in front of others. As a leader in your company, it’s your responsibility to make sure the discussion is appropriately handled, especially since the employee may not even realize there is a problem.

Be Prepared
Don’t let nerves get in the way of delivering the information clearly. Prior to the meeting, think carefully about the words you will use so your message is perceived the way you intend. You may draw a blank if the employee challenges the claims, so be prepared with facts or examples to support your statements. Also, prepare for smaller details such as how you will bring up the topic, where will you hold the conversation, and how will you handle a negative reaction. You’ll feel more comfortable and focused during your conversation.

Be Direct
If there is an issue with one employee’s behavior, don’t lecture the entire group. It’s a common tactic to speak to the group as a whole when you have feedback meant for one person. When this happens, the message is not clearly communicated and it often leaves everyone confused. Don’t make anyone guess what you really mean.

Focus on the Behavior, not the Person
Describe the problem in a nonjudgmental way and explain how this issue is affecting his or her job performance or affecting the business operations. This is not about your personal opinion, but how the issue is affecting the workplace. Have your employee help you problem-solve so the solution is a collaborative effort.

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Empathize with the Employee
If you think this conversation will feel awkward for you as a manager, just think about it from the employee’s point of view. Your tone should be serious and show the utmost care and concern for the employee. This is also a bad time to try and lighten the mood by making jokes. Your employee likely won’t laugh and may feel embarrassed or offended.

Look out for Legal Issues
Before you address the situation, make sure you are aware of any potential legal problems that could arise. Before you move forward with your plans to confront an issue, don’t make any discriminatory comments or other legal missteps that could be costly down the road.

Look for signs of improvement and give positive feedback if the situation has improved or been resolved. If the issue still continues, you may need to follow your company’s discipline policies and handle accordingly.

For more information on how Oasis can assist your company in this or any area of Human Resources, contact Oasis Outsourcing at 866-AT-OASIS (866-286-2747) or visit us online at


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