How to Approach an Employee About a Sensitive Issue

Two business people sitting in front of each other in the office while discussing something

From bickering team members to underperforming employees, most managers will have to tackle a difficult work situation at some point in their careers. Without adequate guidance and support, however, addressing these issues can be difficult and stressful for managers. If handled ineffectively, these issues can also sap employee productivity and morale.


The following tips from MHN can help managers navigate through one kind of challenging, yet common work situation: approaching an employee about a sensitive issue.


Tips for managers

As a manager, you may need to talk to an employee at some point about an issue that is uncomfortable to discuss, such as inappropriate attire, poor hygiene, or offensive language or behavior. While it may be tempting to avoid the conversation altogether, these kinds of issues – if left unchecked – can impact your team’s productivity and cohesion, as well as staff morale.


Consider the following tips before you approach an employee about an issue:

  • Always talk to your HR Department first for important guidance on avoiding discriminatory statements and following organizational policy.
  • Make sure that the issue is directly related to a business concern. A personal reaction to someone’s weight, for instance, does not affect the ability of the individual or co-workers to perform their jobs. On the other hand, poor hygiene leading to an unpleasant odor can be disruptive to other employees in the workplace.
  • Avoid vague communication, such as addressing the whole team about the issue.
  • Put yourself in the employee’s shoes, and imagine how you would like to be treated if your boss had to approach you about a personal issue.
  • Be sensitive to the fact that different cultures have different norms and standards for appearance, bathing, dress, and diet. Remember that the issue may be related to a medical condition.
  • Whenever possible, do not share the names of the employees who reported the concern.
  • If possible, meet with the employee at the end of the day to discuss the issue, so he or she will not feel self-conscious throughout the workday.


Keep the following guidelines for conversation in mind when you talk with the employee:

  1. Find a private area for the discussion.
  2. Start with a positive approach about how you value the employee. This will help put the employee at ease.
  3. Assume the employee is not aware of the problem.
  4. Be tactful, professional and respectful, but also be direct about the personal issue (don’t “sugarcoat” the problem).
  5. Tie the issue to a job-related consequence, such as an impact on the team.
  6. Give the employee an opportunity to problem-solve the issue. If he or she doesn’t offer any solutions, try offering your own in question form, i.e., “Have you considered…?”
  7. Be clear with the employee about the expectations for change.
  8. If the employee may benefit from outside support related to the issue, suggest that he or she call the Employee Assistance Program.


The following script is an example of a conversation you may have with the employee (in a private setting):

“John, you have been with us for the past five years, and I really value you as an employee. However, something has come to my attention, and the concern is personal (hygiene, dress, language, etc.). Are you aware of this problem? I really want to work with you to find a solution.  One of the expectations we have is that we will work together in ways that make it a pleasant and productive environment for everyone. I would like to talk about what can be done to meet the company’s expectations (dress code, etc.). Do you have any suggestions? (At this point, you can ask the employee for solutions. If the employee doesn’t have any suggestions, present the employee with some of your own.) I’m going to follow up with you in a week to review what we have discussed.”

By taking a collaborative approach, you can help minimize any embarrassment, and keep the workplace positive and productive.


Need additional guidance? 

MHN is here to help. MHN’s management consultants provide professional guidance and support for managing difficult workplace situations, troubled employees and job performance issues. Our consultants have a unique background in professional counseling, human resources and business, allowing them to offer the insight, assessment, feedback, and action plans that are right for your managers and employees. MHN’s services include management consultation, Job Performance Referrals, onsite critical incident response services and Department of Transportation referrals. To learn more, please call 1-800-327-7526 or email

This article is for informational and self-help purposes only. It should not be treated as a substitute for financial, medical, psychiatric, psychological, or behavioral health care advice, or as a substitute for consultation with a qualified professional.
Managed Health Network, Inc. (MHN) is a subsidiary of Health Net, Inc. The MHN family of companies includes Managed Health Network, MHN Services and MHN Government Services. Health Net and Managed Health Network are registered service marks of Health Net, Inc. or its affiliates. All rights reserved.




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Stacy Madden