One morning, shortly after ABC News contributor Tory Johnson stepped off the set of Good Morning America, her boss called her into her office. Barbara Fedida, the highest ranking female executive at ABC News, told Johnson she didn’t look as good as she could and offered to connect her to a stylist that would give her a makeover.
“She never used the words ‘fat, diet or obesity,’ but her message was clear: I needed to lose weight,” Johnson says. “Let’s face it: On TV, looks matter.”
They matter in other workplaces, too. Awkward conversations around personal appearance and behavior are increasingly happening in businesses of all sizes. From weight concerns to body odor, inappropriate outfits to annoying behavior, managers find it daunting to tackle these uncomfortable discussions with workers. Yet, sometimes there’s just no avoiding it.
Such conversations can go in several directions. For Johnson, a Miami Beach native, it led to shedding more than 70 pounds over 18 months, mostly because she says she was ready to hear the message. “If you want someone to change, offer solutions; don’t threaten them. And, don’t expect overnight results. Change happens over time in small increments.”
Handling the difficult conversation requires skill and empathy and works best when the person initiating it has a good, trusting relationship with the employee. “When you love your job and respect the people you work with, you are more receptive to hearing something from them,” says Johnson, who has published her weight loss story in a new book, The Shift.
Even when there’s mutual trust, a soft entry tends to work best: acknowledging that you are about to bring up a sensitive matter and offering a solution or encouraging the other person to come up with their own.
The assumption should be that the person is oblivious to their appearance or behavior problem, which turns out to be a great conversation opener, says Scott Garvis, president of Dale Carnegie South Florida. “You could say something like, ‘You are probably not aware of it, but you are judged in the business world on how you look, how you act, what you say and how you say it.’ ”
A few years ago, urged by the rest of the staff, Garvis had to tell an employee he talked too much. “It was not fun. I had to give myself a pep talk to remind myself I was doing him a favor.”
Garvis says it helps to cushion an awkward conversation by showing empathy. Offer up an example of your own blind spots or mistakes and emphasize that someone spoke up to allow you to make changes. “I’m here to be the person for you that this other person was for me.”
Managers who dread these conversations often get nudged into them when other employees complain about the uncomfortable behavior, dress or habits of a co-worker. At one workplace, a manager’s bushy nose hair became so distracting to his staff during presentations that executive speaking coach Anne Freedman was asked to have the difficult conversation with him about it. She says she approached it by addressing the positive first. “I pointed out that the company was investing in him to be a better presenter and said that when you are making a presentation you need to look your best from head to toe and allow others to think of you as a star.”
Freedman, founder of SpeakOut in Miami, says in almost any difficult conversation, you need to get across that what you are recommending is going to help the person with his or her relationships with other people.
Choosing the right place for the conversation is important, too. If your office seems intimidating or too public, arrange a private meeting. You might also consider inviting the employee for lunch or a cup of coffee.
For Adam Cronin, a personal trainer, the uncomfortable conversations were with clients and he held them outside the gym. He asked clients to take a walk with him, told them he was changing genders to become a female and urged them to continue on as clients in his new exercise facility.
“When you are going to have a conversation that is difficult, half of it is the set up — being in an environment they are comfortable in and letting them know you are going to talk about something that’s difficult,” Cronin says. Reactions were varied. “I knew that would happen. Going into a difficult conversation, you have to be prepared for any outcome while remembering you are doing what you need to do.”
Even with a well-framed approach, the person on the other end might become angry and defensive. If so, remain calm, respond in a way you can be proud of later. “Make it clear that your concern is professional, affects others and that you’re not making a personal criticism,” Garvis advises.
In many workplaces, the new tough conversations increasingly involve bad behavior around tech use. Those can be particularly tricky, especially when they involve someone senior to you in the organization.
Laura Berger, an executive coach and leadership consultant with The Berdeo Group in Fort Lauderdale, said she was asked to help staff at one company tell a CEO his incessant smartphone usage during staff meetings was offensive to his team. Berger forced him to role play with her. “You want them to sit in the shoes of someone else and observe,” she said. Then, she posed a question, “What do you think is a most effective way to modify your behavior?” She suggests, “Let them come up with ideas to solve it.”
While difficult workplace conversations take courage, the consequence of not having them can be costly. An overwhelming majority (85 percent) of employees at all levels say they experience workplace conflict to some degree, spending as much as 2.8 hours per week dealing with it, according to a CPP Inc. study. Managers tend to postpone these talks, or skirt the real issue, hoping the concern will go away on its own, says Berger: “That almost never happens.”