Awkward workplace situations are almost unavoidable when you consider the number of diverse personalities, opinions and behaviours that are forcibly grouped together to form the average workplace.
It is likely that every work environment has had the same complaint at some point about a certain employee who sometimes makes the workplace feel “awkward” for any number of reasons.
However, when their behaviour begins to have a negative effect on workplace productivity then action needs to be taken. The problem here is that such matters do not require disciplinary action but rather intelligent and sensitive handling, for which there is no official handbook. Unfortunately, if left unaddressed, the instigators of awkward workplace situations will not rectify themselves and the circumstances are more likely to worsen.
What constitutes an awkward workplace?
Definitions may range from the employee who just simply talks too much, through to “agenda pushers” who are uncomfortably forward in imposing political and personal beliefs on other team members. “Inappropriate humour” is also a common problem – and questioning the humour does not always give to cause to the individual to question their appropriateness. Other commonalities include the “loud-mouth”. If there is not already an agreement (written or spoken) about noise levels and respect for a pleasant working environment then this needs to be established.
Employees need to be reminded that such interactions and behaviours are unnecessary to the completion of day-to-day work tasks. These types of people can be seen by other employees as “over-sharers” and they must be approached promptly and firmly, before it develops beyond low-level irritation. It is not necessarily that these personality traits are wrong in themselves; it is the reactions they generate in other staff that need to be considered, as this is where conflict can cultivate. At the opposite end of the personality spectrum there is “the intensifier” – moody, gloomy and seriously serious throughout the working day; consider the dynamics here. It is worth considering that this may be a reaction to an uncomfortable amount of noise and disturbance from someone who needs low-level noise to operate at their best.
Frequently at the top of the list is the “office romance”, whether officially permitted or not, which will become considerably inappropriate if the relationship deteriorates. This closely relates to overly physical or “intimate personalities”. Not to forget the awkward situation of “unpleasant body odours”, which should be approached with particular caution.
Issues on such a personal level require empathy in the delivery and a careful choice of words to avoid embarrassment. It is also important to remember that this is sometimes better delivered by an individual who has an established relationship with the employee.
The “inappropriate dresser” is another common source of conflict and is a rare situation where a direct, forward approach is best, (as a dress policy should always be established in advance of employment), therefore if the instruction has been ignored, offer to go over the rules again, answer any questions and address any grey areas.
How to eliminate it?
Whilst it is all too easy to focus on the short-comings of certain team members and direct blame in their direction, it is vital to remember your team dynamics. Each of these “offenders” is also a positive contributor to the team (if they are not, then why were they hired?) Be careful not to turn to scapegoating, remember, it is not the behaviour itself is not where the conflict arises, it is the reactions that create the conflict.
For example, an employee criticising incessant foot tapping may be best reminded that it is only their irritation that is causing the problem. Send out a group email with a reminder of policies and expectations. Honesty can be uncomfortable, but most workplaces do not have enough frank and honest conversations for fear of hierarchy and the flow of power in the dynamic of the conversation. Leave your own personality traits at the door when dealing with the traits of others; ensure the direction of blame remains as neutral as possible. Agree on set times when non-work related talking is ok, clearly set the boundaries for office relationships, dress policies and respect for other team members (which includes personal hygiene as a way to show consideration to others).
No matter the situation, there are always certain things to remember when approaching any awkward workplace situation:
- Always approach in a timely manner, procrastinating in any instance will not lead to positive outcomes; the approach should be handled sensitively, with a focus on how uncomfortable this is for both parties. This is absolutely always done face to face, how else are you to gauge the response?
- If a follow-up meeting is required, give warning – so that both parties enter the subsequent meeting fully prepared.
- Keep it brief and remember that this is not a time to dictate, it is a time to firmly suggest.