Beth Haiken has led corporate communications teams announcing massive layoffs, explaining plunging stock prices, and reporting unprecedented losses. But in some ways, her biggest challenge may have been telling a subordinate that coworkers were complaining that she smelled bad. “They specifically said she smelled like cat [urine],” Haiken says.
During a career that included high-level positions at two midsize financial-services firms, Haiken had taken management classes as well as picked up tips on the job. “I’d learned how to hire someone, I knew how to fire someone, I knew how to tell someone their work was subpar,” says Haiken, now a San Francisco public relations executive. “This wasn’t something I knew how to do.”
Go ahead and laugh, but then consider what you would do in a similar situation. It may come up. On NiceCritic.com, an online service that allows people to send coworkers and others anonymous prewritten comments, Personal Hygiene is the second most popular category, following Cubicle Critic. One of the hygiene suggestions on the list is: “A breath mint would be beneficial today.” There are also tips regarding ear hair, cigarette smoke, and perfume. Cubicle Critic is more of the same but for dealing with loud talkers, jangling cell-phone ringers, and smelly lunches.
If the thought of confronting a coworker or subordinate about a personal matter seems only slightly less palatable than, say, informing your investors you won’t make your numbers this quarter, you are probably normal. Successful veterans of business usually have above-average communication skills, says John Daly, a professor in the communication and business schools at the University of Texas at Austin, but that doesn’t mean they’re good at delivering bad news, especially when it’s personal. “It’s not something people are born with,” he says, “But anyone can learn it if they want to.”
In case you return to your office and find a committee of complainers about a coworker’s body odor, or a note from your boss that delegates to you the job of announcing a layoff, here’s what you need to learn.
First, don’t avoid the task or put it off longer than necessary. “The longer you wait, the worse it gets,” Daly says. “The mistake we make is we’re hesitant to tell somebody something, and it doesn’t get better with age.” Even seemingly minor issues can seriously affect your business if neglected.
Cameron Herold, while working as a manager at a public company, realized that the cause of odd behavior by people in his business unit was a recently hired, highly attractive young receptionist -- specifically her tongue ring, visible underwear, and flirty behavior. “She had everyone in the company dysfunctional,” says Herold, now a Vancouver leadership consultant. “The guys couldn’t do anything without taking a route by the front desk.” Reluctantly, Herold decided he had to do something.
The second thing the experts advise is to do nothing until you plan what you will say and consult with the experts. “Think it through; even write it down,” says Suzanne Bates, a Wellesley, Massachusetts, communications consultant and the author of Speak like a CEO: Secrets for Commanding Attention and Getting Results. “And practice it if you’re at all concerned about how it’s going to come across.”
Haiken went to the experts in her human-resources department. There, she got advice on words to say, brainstormed possible causes of the odor, and, more importantly, drew up ways the company could help remedy the problem. Haiken was already committed to the value of suggesting solutions, based on her experience crafting a mass layoff announcement at another company. “The most useful thing I learned there was you never want to come out and announce a problem without at the same time announcing a solution,” she says. In that case, workers who had been laid off were invited to apply for jobs elsewhere in the company and were offered outplacement counseling and résumé-writing assistance. The company also organized a job fair, where other employers could scout the newly unemployed.
Pick a nonthreatening setting in which to deliver the message. This means broach personal issues after work rather than before, Bates says. That way, the person getting critiqued can go straight home to settle down. Clearly, a cubicle doesn’t suit a body-odor discussion, but a sudden, unexplained summons to the boss’s office is likely to engender unhelpful anxiety. Haiken suggests prefacing the request with a qualifier that the meeting doesn’t concern job performance.
When you actually open your mouth to speak, what comes out had better be unmistakably clear. Sure, you’d like to handle the problem by, say, leaving a stick of deodorant on the smelly one’s desk. But, the experts say, hints like that don’t work. “Clarity is critical when you’re trying to get your message across in a business environment,” Daly says. That means calling a spade a spade. But you need to do it with empathy. “The ability to understand how other people might be able to see what’s going on is incredibly important,” Daly stresses.
Your chances of messing this up are fair. It may be, for instance, especially tempting to apologize when you deliver really bad news such as a layoff, an office closure, or an earnings disappointment. But don’t. “You can’t say anything that indicates the company is making a bad decision or is sorry for what it’s doing,” Haiken says. “It’s a very fine line you have to walk, expressing empathy while not apologizing for what the company is doing.”
Another mistake to avoid is trying to place blame for a business failure elsewhere rather than owning up to whatever role you personally played. “Take some ownership,” Bates says. Even when learning of a complete business shutdown or a similar catastrophe, people respond positively if you accept some responsibility, she says. And don’t forget Management 101 rules such as setting explicit expectations, which are vital whether you’re specifying on-time performance or, say, a flirt-free workplace. Often, you’ll need to follow up to see how things are going with workers facing layoffs, disgruntled investors, ticked-off cubicle mates, or whoever your constituencies may be.
Given the challenges that face bearers of potentially embarrassing or difficult news, anonymous e-mail by services such as NiceCritic.com probably start to sound pretty good. However, Bates says, you can’t humanely tell someone by e-mail he’s been laid off. Even NiceCritic.com founder Erik Riesenberg admits, “I say on the website that the first choice is to talk to somebody face-to-face.”
And despite the discomfort, these situations often turn out fairly well. Herold’s office hottie, for instance, quickly agreed to tone down her dress and behavior when he, swallowing his nerves, explained the problem to her. “Literally that afternoon, everything was different,” he says.
Haiken found out her subordinate’s odor problem was really a transportation problem. The woman was disabled, and due to a change in circumstances, she had begun having trouble getting her clothing to the laundry. A referral to a local social-services agency led to her getting help with her wash, and the office atmosphere got instantly lighter. Up to a point, anyway. “It’s not like I can say I handled it so well that afterward she gave me a hug and we were best friends,” Haiken says. “But I got through it.”