No one likes to get bad news, especially employees. And no one really likes to give it, especially employers. That's why "difficult situations"...

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No one likes to get bad news, especially employees. And no one really likes to give it, especially employers.

That’s why “difficult situations” — such as resolving conflicts, stopping malicious gossip or even bringing up the subject of body odor or bad breath — are a challenge for supervisors, human resource professionals and the people they manage.

But these issues have to be addressed, according to Lynn Nemser, president of Partners in Performance, a human resources consulting firm based in Pittsburgh.

“A lot of managers delay delivering bad news because they just hope it will go away,” Nemser said. “But rarely do these problems go away by themselves, and they do affect morale, productivity and personal lives.”

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Managers often are so concerned about how to deal with these delicate situations that Nemser gives workshops on the subject. In fact, “Handling Difficult Conversations with Employees” is the topic of a talk the consultant will give June 20 at the annual conference of the Society for Human Resource Management in San Diego.

Nemser, a member of the society’s panel on work force staffing and deployment, points out that however difficult these situations are for the employee, they’re also hard on the human resource professional asked by management to step in.

“It’s daunting,” she said. “HR people, it may come as a surprise, are human beings, too. It’s hard to deal with things in a gray area — and this is one of them.”

She advises HR professionals to be caring but direct. Discussions, she advises, should be in private and not over lunch. In cases of conflict, when workers are not getting along with each other, Nemser advises holding “as many meetings as it takes” with small groups of people. “Get the issues out in the open and focus on resolving, not blaming,” she emphasized. “Ask for specific examples.”

When it comes to rumors, which “can be very damaging,” challenge the person spreading them. “Pull the employee aside privately and try not to sound preachy or self-righteous,” she advised. “Try to inject a little humor: Say you hate to repeat a rumor, but there’s a rumor you’re spreading rumors. Ask if you can reach an agreement to stop, that it’s damaging to careers, personal lives and the organization. It’s a gentle way of putting someone on notice. Threatening rarely works.”

Complaints about personal hygiene are prevalent in the workplace — and among the most delicate to handle.

“Deal with it directly,” the consultant said. “Don’t leave hints such as deodorant on the person’s desk — that’s humiliating. Do it in private and when it’s a good time, not on a Monday morning or when the person is on a major deadline.”

The HR person, who usually holds the “conversation” at the request of the manager who doesn’t want to do it, can only state the complaints about hygiene but not give solutions. “Tell the employee the problem and allow for silence.”

And how does the employee respond in these situations?

“The best thing to do is to say thanks for the feedback and take time to think about it,” Nemser said. “And the best outcome is stop what you were doing.”

E-mail questions to Carol Kleiman at ckleiman@tribune.com. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune

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