“The way we dress affects the way we think, the way we feel, the way we act, and the way others react to us.” – Judith Rasband
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The most uncomfortable conversations in practice management
From unpleasant body odor to inappropriate outfits at work, these are some uncomfortable topics practice managers must talk to their team members about. Here is how to make these awkward conversations meaningful and productive.
As a former manager, I would have rather faced an angry client than to have to tell one of my staff members they had body odor or dressed inappropriately. It ranks right up there with the time our computer glitch billed one of our most influential clients – again- for the euthanasia we performed on his schnauzer. An uncomfortable call to say the least. So, how do you gracefully manage these challenging and embarrassing conversations?
When situations are approached with curiosity rather than judgement, even the most awkward conversations can go well. Ideally, as a leader, you have developed a caring and trusting relationship with your staff members. Entering these conversations with a firm foundation built on past experiences with the manager acting like a coach rather than a corrections officer, allows both parties to relax and reduces negative responses. If you have not earned the trust of your team, these meetings, these conversations are going to be a lot more difficult.
Addressing body odor
Years ago, I had a wonderful client service representative (CSR). He was great with clients, always on time for work, supportive of our level of medical care, and just the one you wanted working the desk during an emergency. However, this CSR who was so meticulous about his appearance, developed an offensive odor. His coworkers quietly came to me with this problem, and I spent some time over the next few days confirming this was not a one-time occurrence. Proper investigation always matters when broaching such a delicate subject. His coworkers were correct, he had developed a smell like garlic.
I took advantage of timing to broach the subject near the end of his shift so he could feel comfortable leaving to address the odor. I began our conversation with how much I valued him as an employee and how I appreciated his skill with clients. Then I asked, “John (not his real name) are you aware that you have developed an unusual body odor? I ask because this is not normal for you. Perhaps something has changed for you that would cause you to have a problem.”
At first, I could see he was shocked. We all know that you can develop “nose blindness” to chronic smells and he had no idea. Once again, I reassured him that this was just a discovery conversation and a heads up for his personal information. As we talked, he revealed that a few weeks prior he had a change in his prescribed medication. When we did some “backtracking” to figure out when the odor started, we found that it was not long after the change in medication. BINGO! He came up with a plan to upgrade his deodorant and bring an extra scrub top to change into if needed. John and I both came out relieved to have found a solution and the problem was resolved.
Over the years, other managers have shared similar stories with me. One staff member was homeless after a relationship breakup and had limited access to a shower. Another was simply unable to afford a change of clothes and personal hygiene products or they live in homes where strong cooking smells linger on clothing. All these “smelly” scenarios can and should be approached with curiosity, compassion, and support. The staff member was offered the use of the hospital shower and the other was given a couple of sets of scrubs and a gift basket of personal hygiene products. Our practice kept Febreze for our smokers to use before they came back on the floor.
Other needed conversations
The best place to start to avoid clothing conversations is with the practice dress code. The dress code sets rules and expectations and is presented to potential new hires to confirm they are willing to comply. I have worked in many types of practice and each had a dress code that took into consideration the duties of those team members. For example, our large animal practitioners had coveralls, warm shirts for cold weather farm calls and khakis with a short sleeved shirts for summer. The dress code limited jewelry, asked that long hair be pulled back for safety and limited the visibility of tattoos. Keep in mind this was 15 years ago and “social norms” have changed.
All these dress code discussions were shared upfront with potential employees, so they didn’t come to work and get surprised by the requirements. Dress is a personal choice until it is not and workplaces do have the right to require certain dress. I recommend practice managers check labor laws in your state because most require a company to purchase or rent a uniform and provide it to employees to if they require them to wear it. Dress codes should also not discriminate pertaining to the norms of diverse cultures.
“Looking good isn’t self-importance; it’s self-respect.” – Charles Hix
In your dress code, state that “clothing is to fit as to not be inappropriately revealing, too large or too small nor dragging the ground.” This seems simple, until you find that “fit” means different things to different folks.