Handling Awkward Work Conversations

awkward work conversationsBy Beth Braccio Hering, Special to CareerBuilder

Being called in by a superior to discuss a topic both of you would probably prefer not to touch can be difficult, but if an employee can limit defensiveness and truly listen, the conversation may be enlightening. Meet three people who survived such interactions and came out stronger professionals.

Discussion leads to makeover

"The cocktail party was in full swing when my boss, with whom I was immersed in a conversation, started to lean to the right until his head was level with my waist," recalls Wendy Komac, a workplace consultant from Cleveland. "Then he popped the question, 'Is that a bellybutton ring?' I was wearing a black lace top over a black camisole. Apparently, the light caught the gem on the end of the ring, and it caught his attention. It was an awkward moment, and I really hoped he'd never bring the subject up. By this time, I had a senior vice president title, and there was a bit of a bad-girl personal side to me that I didn't share at the office and didn't want to start now."

But the boss did bring it up again -- as the lead-in to a broader discussion about workplace dress. "I was never going to be a navy blue suit kind of a girl, but if I wanted to advance, it was important that I took his comments to heart," Komac admits. She worked with a style coach to develop an authentic look that also reflected the sophistication required in the executive suite. "That was 12 years ago, and it has worked well for me ever since."

Impetus for change

An uncomfortable conversation that Jim Zamichieli of Philadelphia, had with a boss taught him not to compromise his ethics and ultimately led him to leave the company.

"While working as the chief technology officer at a digital creative agency, the CEO (my boss) told me that a consultant I recently brought in didn't fit the company personality . . . The consultant, a 30-something female, was a stocky woman who dressed professionally, but her attire had a slightly gothic flare."

When Zamichieli pressed the CEO to define the company's "personality," he says she became increasingly agitated. Zamichieli was told to give the consultant a two-day notice. Instead, he came up with valid business reasons why the consultant was needed for at least two more weeks, adding, "The truth was that the consultant, who was an exceptionally talented person, was not only needed indefinitely, but should have been hired as a full-time employee." He used the time to get the consultant more deeply involved in a particular project. Others realized her worth, and though the CEO was livid with Zamichieli, she knew that business would be jeopardized by letting the consultant go.

"I never let the consultant know what was going on, but I did advise her that the company was not a place for growth and was suffering from political issues," Zamichieli says. He himself resigned two months later and started his own digital marketing company.

Developing leadership by example

Jennifer Selby Long of Oakland, Calif., had been hired by a large company to foster leadership within the organization, including building alliances and ensuring that people showed appreciation for their peers. But she was the one who discovered she needed some training.

"I made a big, big mistake when we were under tremendous pressure on a project. I dressed down my team of peers and was very hard on them. My facts were right, and they had performed poorly, but that was no excuse for me to do exactly the opposite of what I was supposed to be teaching."

Her boss privately pulled her aside in the hallway after the meeting and calmly and supportively said, "You have tremendous power, and you completely forgot that in there. You just set the team back, and it's now your job to move them forward again. You are such a strong personality that you can kill the energy in the room or build it up almost instantly. Always remember that."

While she says she felt terrible about what she had done, Selby Long felt confident that she could turn it around because of how her boss handled this awkward and difficult conversation. "I just wish everyone could have a boss like [him] at least once in their career. I attribute so much of my later success to his ability to coach me through any difficult conversation or situation."

Beth Braccio Hering researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues for CareerBuilder. Follow @CareerBuilder on Twitter.

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