Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

How to Talk to Someone about Their Poor Hygiene

Dear Crucial Skills,

We have been avoiding an employee’s hygiene issue for a while now. He usually works from home, but occasionally he works onsite, and he has long fingernails and stains on his shirt—too unkempt for our bakery stores. We are the owners and have read Crucial Conversations, and yet we don’t know when and how to bring this up. Most of our interactions happen via video, and when we’re together in person we often don’t have privacy. Any suggestions?

Timid Two

Dear Timid Two,

I’d like to share two ideas with you.

  1. Whenever we assume responsibility for another’s feelings, we struggle to speak up.
  2. The scarier a conversation seems, the more likely it is we are telling ourselves a story.

I’ve gained those insights after years of watching my own emotional responses to the prospect of a Crucial Conversation. I share them with you in case they’re helpful.

I invite you to consider the possibility that you’ve been avoiding this conversation because rather than assume responsibility for what’s in your control—your motive and words—you’ve been assuming responsibility for how your employee might feel when you speak up. So, first, take responsibility for what you can: how you will respectfully speak your mind.

Next, check your heart for stories. We often fear speaking up about an issue because we’ve assumed it’s one of disrespect, ignorance, laziness, stupidity, incompetence, arrogance, or the like.

As I see it, here’s your issue: You work with food, and hygiene affects both safety and customer confidence. You have an employee whose hygiene doesn’t meet the standard. Consider how simple this conversation could be.

“Hey, Frank, do you have a minute? I’m not sure how best to say this, but I want to say it because I respect you enough to be honest with you, and I think it’s important for our business. I don’t have a personal problem with your dress or appearance, but I worry our customers might. I’ve noticed that you frequently have dirt under your fingernails and stains on your shirt. I’m concerned with how customers might feel about this. I’m not upset, and you aren’t in trouble; I’m trying to be mindful of customers. Could you address those two things before you come into work?”

I’m not trying to make light of this conversation—I realize it’s a tough one. I’m trying to demonstrate that if you assume responsibility for what’s in your power and master your story, there’s no reason you can’t say what you think in a respectful way.

Also, have you communicated expectations? You might preempt this conversation by communicating clear standards to ALL employees. Draft a document that outlines standards for hygiene at work. Post it in the kitchen. Have a meeting about it. Then see what happens. Maybe your employee doesn’t know what’s expected of him. In short, don’t treat this as a moral failing; treat it as a matter of professional ability. This will help you support the new behavior rather than condemn the current. You might even offer to buy him a couple of shirts for work.

Because you’ve read Crucial Conversations, I believe that if you reflect on these ideas, you’ll determine what you need to say and make the time to say it. You might’ve noticed in my example above an effort to make it safe and establish mutual respect using skills taught in the book. If you need a refresher, check out this article by Kerry Patterson.

This doesn’t guarantee your employee won’t take offense; he may. But again, if you’ve done the internal work to ensure you can communicate with respect, you’re far more likely to stay in dialogue no matter how he responds.

We often make mountains out of molehills. In my experience, most people value honest feedback, even if they may initially bristle. And though it requires some courage, sharing your meaning gets the conversation started. You can’t resolve anything until you start talking.

Good luck,

PS. One final thought. Not taking responsibility for another’s feelings does not mean to disregard their feelings. There is a difference between respecting another’s feelings and trying to manage them.

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

12 thoughts on “How to Talk to Someone about Their Poor Hygiene”

  1. Dave McCarraher

    Been there. It was difficult but I led with compassion and empathy. We all noticed the behavior change over time.

  2. Diana Hutchinson

    I noticed the letter writer stated “long fingernails” and that morphed into “dirt under your fingernails” in your reply. Is there something about a man with long fingernails that is offensive, or do all employees need to have trimmed nails for food safety?
    I also noted in the suggested reply, “I don’t have a personal problem with your dress and appearance but our customers might”. My story is that the owner does have a personal problem with it, and why not be honest rather than blaming theoretical customer concerns? Why not say, ” Frank, you’re a great worker and you add a lot to our company. Since we’re a food service company and we want to make a good impression for our clients it’s really important to look sharp and make sure that we’re we have good hygiene. When I see the stains on your shirt, I think it doesn’t give as good of an impression for what our company represents. It’s a pretty minor thing. And I would appreciate it if you would consider if you would wear shirts that represent the high quality of service that you offer.”

    1. Diantha Litwer

      Excellent response.

    2. Ryan Trimble

      I like that, Diana, thanks. I must’ve misread the bit about fingernails. And my example “I don’t have a personal problem…” is based on the assumption that the questioner wouldn’t after mastering their story. But in the case they did, there’s no reason they couldn’t communicate it. Great approach.

    3. Anna

      Diana Hutchinson: Agree! My exact thoughts when I read the response. Since there is not a “like” button for comments, consider this comment a thumbs up to your insight.

    4. Shelly

      Diana, I was thinking the same thing. Long fingernails are unhygienic on males or females. I’ve been a nurse for 30 years. I remember the days when our nails needed to be trimmed, clean, and absolutely no gel/acrylic allowed (due to bacteria and mold). Now, I work with nurses who have inch long fingernails. Thanks for pointing out how honesty is the best policy.

    5. Rohan

      great way of handling!

  3. Milo

    As a member of a community studio, we occasionally get global emails about expectations. Being a small group, we all know the background story, and no one likes the group blasts. It’s embarrassing and occasionally humiliating. I highly encourage a one-on-one talk with the person about the laundry. Also, maybe they don’t know how to get odd stains out of their clothes. Maybe gentle coaching on products or techniques to get rid of stains would help?
    Regarding fingernails: leave fingernail brushes at all sinks. I could understand this topic as a group email easier than the laundry stains. If people are uneasy about sharing a fingernail brush, get different color ones for everyone. If there are more staff than colors, add a wrap of color tape on the handle so you now have red-with-yellow-tape, etc. This seems like an easier fix than the laundry.
    Then there’s deodorant use, or lack thereof… good luck!

  4. Barb

    This is a correct approach. Working at a large community hospital, some employees that did not use deodorant and had direct contact with patients. Staff also complained about the odors. I approached one to use deodorant and the response was that “they shower daily” to which I responded that it wasn’t enough – “our patients already do not feel well and the odors may upset them.” This worked. I had another who was unkempt, poor hygiene, very smart but resistant and reassigned the person to the front desk.I like the suggestion of a policy.

  5. Charles Charman

    This is an excellent real-life application of the Crucial Conversations skills. Thank you Ryan!

  6. Basheer Mohamad Hanifa

    Thanks Ryan & Diana. I ponder upon both of your writings/comment on this hygiene issues. Felt benefitted from it as guidelines for other issues too.
    Appreciative Regards.

  7. JennyG

    Yes, to Diana. And yes! to a specific, clear policy for all to follow meeting industry standards. Only then is it fair to require compliance.

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