Whoopi Goldberg's recent embarrassment on live TV brought to mind the most difficult conversation I ever had in the workplace.
As a manager, I often had to bring up issues of poor performance with employees. But this case actually involved a very high-performing employee. He was a little shy, but worked harder than anyone else on the team. He just had one problem. He farted. All the time. I was thinking of promoting him (let's call him Stinky), but his colleagues made fun of him behind his back. Something had to be done.
First, I went to Stinky's immediate supervisor (my number two) and asked him to deal with the situation. It was perhaps the only time in my career I used my gender to try to get out of something.
"I can't talk to him -- it will be doubly embarrassing for him to hear this from a woman," I said.
"Sorry," said my number two. "I won't be able to keep a straight face. You're much better at this type of stuff."
I begged him, but he wouldn't change his mind.
I thought about asking HR to handle it, but decided it would be even more embarrassing if I brought in someone outside of our department. And would HR have to put something in his file?
So I scheduled a meeting with Stinky and dove right in.
"I'm sorry, but I just have to bring something up," I said. "I think maybe you have some sort of medical issue that perhaps you're not aware of, but other people are."
Stinky looked at me blankly. Could he really not know?
"I'm sorry, but you have an odor issue."
Still no reaction.
I spoke quickly, but as gently as I could.
"It seems that you are expelling gas all the time and it's bothering your colleagues. You need to make a doctor's appointment and get it checked out."
He looked down at the table. I thought about stepping out of the room backwards before he looked up.
Finally, he raised his eyes and spoke slowly.
"I was not aware of that. Thank you for bringing it to my attention."
Somehow, the conversation worked. I don't know the medical cure for this issue or maybe he just started running into the bathroom when he felt something coming on, but the problem went away. And I was able to promote an excellent employee six months later.
Keep in mind that the average human expels gas ten to twenty times a day, so it wouldn't hurt if we each asked our most trusted co-worker if we ourselves have any odor issues.
The main lesson here is that we need to address the things that are hard to talk about -- the issues that keep us from working effectively. (Most of us don't have the confidence of a Whoopi Goldberg to joke about a faux pas in real time.)
Too bad my employee didn't have a friend who could have mentioned his problem to him earlier. But often the boss has to step in and deal with an issue like this as straightforwardly and compassionately as possible. The elephant in the room seldom goes away on its own.