by Paul Matthews

Difficult feedback

Have you ever been in a situation where you needed to give feedback to someone about something personal? The list of possible issues is endless:

  • Poor personal hygiene
  • Bad smelling breath
  • Unwashed clothes
  • Smell from alcohol or cigarettes
  • Leaving dirty dishes in the communal area
  • Making a noise that is distracting others
  • Dressing in a way inappropriate for work
  • Leaving empty drink cans and other rubbish about
  • Flirtatious behaviour that is inappropriate
  • Vulgar language
  • Rude jokes or emails that offend
  • Even parking poorly in the company car park.

What do you do? Do you tolerate it? Do you leave a can of deodoriser on their desk? Do you wait until you simply can’t stand it and then explode at them?

What about the situation where, as a manager, you have been asked by several people to broach a difficult personal subject with one of their colleagues?

If you manage people, or care about your friends at work, there’s a good chance that one day you will need to hold a difficult conversation. A difficult conversation can make the difference between success and failure for a valued employee.

Also be aware that if other employees have complained to you, and you don’t give the feedback, they will, and they may do it in ways that could lead to claims of harassment or bullying.

So, care enough about the employee and your productive, harmonious workplace to overcome your own fears and hold the difficult conversation.

How to hold a difficult conversation

Here are some tips and pointers to enable you to prepare and hold that difficult and dreaded conversation. If you follow these guidelines, you can become effective at holding difficult conversations.

  1. The first thing to realise is that your dread is based on your fear of the interaction turning out badly. Until you have the conversation, you don’t know how it’s going to turn out, so the best thing to do is visualise it turning out well. Imagine the situation after the conversation, when everything has turned out for the best. The way we imagine an interaction turning out becomes a sort of self fulfilling prophecy, so imagine it turning out well.
  2. All the tips and principles of effective feedback still apply. The only difference is that there is a personal dimension that could trigger strong emotions.
  3. Seek permission to provide the feedback. Even if you are the employee’s boss, start by stating you have some feedback you’d like to share. Ask if it’s a good time or if the employee would prefer to select another time and place. Make sure when you do this that you are in or can quickly move to a private space where you won’t be interrupted.
  4. Don’t dive right into the feedback, and also don’t prolong things. The employee’s level of anxiety is already sky high and making more small talk while they wait for the bad news to emerge is cruel. Give the person a chance to brace for potentially embarrassing feedback by telling them that you have some feedback that is difficult to share. Also, it can be helpful to acknowledge openly your own discomfort. Most people are as uncomfortable providing feedback about an individual’s personal dress or habits, as the person receiving the feedback. Once you’ve told them that you want to discuss a difficult topic, move right in to the topic of your difficult conversation.
  5. Tell the employee directly what the problem is as you perceive it. If you talk around the issue or soften the impact of the issue too much, the employee may not understand that the problem is serious. If you reference the problem as ‘some of our employees do the following’, the employee may never understand that you mean him.
  6. Often, you are in the feedback role because other employees have complained to you. Do not give in to the temptation to amplify the feedback or excuse your responsibility for it by stating that a number of co-workers have complained. This heightens the embarrassment and harms the recovery of the person receiving feedback. Own the feedback.
  7. Whenever possible, attach the feedback to a business issue. This is not a personal vendetta: the difficult conversation has a direct business purpose. Perhaps other employees don’t want to participate on his team, and you’ve noticed the lack of volunteers. Perhaps his appearance is affecting the perception of customers about the quality of the organisation’s products. Maybe an irritating mannerism has caused a customer to request a different sales rep. Make the business purpose of the conversation clear.
  8. Ensure that the person understands consequences. ‘I am talking with you because this is an issue that you need to address for success in this organisation.’ Express directly the impact you believe the behaviour is having on the employee’s potential promotions, raises, career opportunities and relationships in the workplace, in both a positive and negative sense. That is, tell them the impact that changing their behaviour will have from a positive perspective, and tell them how choosing to do nothing will affect their career and job.
  9. Reach agreement about what the individual will do to change their behaviour. Set a due date – tomorrow, in some cases. Set a time frame to review progress in other cases.
  10. Follow-up. The fact that the problem exists means that backsliding is possible; further clarification may also be necessary. In this case, more feedback and even disciplinary action are possible next steps

Other factors you need to consider

Here are a few more factors that you may need to consider, depending on the circumstances.


It can be tempting to send everyone in the team off to a grooming and professionalism training in the hope that the employee with the issue will shape up. Typically, this won’t work, as the employee concerned may well be completely unaware that there is a problem. There is nothing wrong with these kinds of training, just don’t use them to avoid a difficult conversation.

An even worse temptation, by the way, is to send the individual to a training course of this type on their own. Never do that as it would be discriminatory, unless, of course, they ask for it or agree to it as part of a solution arising from the feedback conversation.


Different cultures have different standards and in today’s diverse and multicultural society, these may become an issue. In general, however, your organisation is justified in asking employees to embrace the cultural standards of the place in which they are working. This is especially true if non-conformance to the standard is interfering with the harmony and productivity of your workplace. Having said that, this is an area where we would advise caution, especially where items of dress are related to religion. The best thing to do is to speak with HR if you think there might be an issue that comes under the various regulations governing diversity. See the topic on Diversity.

Another area that can arise with different cultures is the aroma that can be generated by different styles of cuisine. This can be from clothing or exuded by the body when cooking involves lots of herbs and spices or flavourings such as garlic.


If an employee has repeatedly tried to correct a hygiene issue, such as bad breath, and is not making progress, suggest that they see a doctor to determine if an underlying medical condition might be causing the problem. Your thoughtfulness could save an employee’s life.