On one of the various mailing lists I’m part of this question came up (edited slightly)
Retrospectives teach us to say to team members “I think it would be good to improve such and such for the next sprint”. How about sensitive subjects like “one of the guys speaks in an abrupt manner” or “one of the guys has bad breath”?
Body odour and stink breath, especially for the coffee drinkers amongst us can be a fairly common complaint. If the team has to work closely with someone who has an odour issue then one of the hardest things they have to do with is hide the gagging every time Mr Stinky sits down next to them to discuss an issue. As a scrum master it’s really easy to cop out of dealing with this problem and resort to, “let the team self-manage and figure it out for themselves” but that assumes that they have the skills to do so. In the I.T. industry people are generally not so sensitive to other people’s feelings and leaving this issue alone for too long is likely to turn into a source of conflict within the team. As scrum masters we need to facilitate good team work and step in when required to help resolve this problem.
Having a subject like this pop up during a retro would be really bad for the team. (I’d going to call it a smell/stench in team behaviour, but I apparently exceeded my dad humour quota for this month already). The good thing is that it’s unlikely to happen as you’ll usually hear grumbling from individuals long before anyone on the team brings it up publicly. People usually have more sense than to take the ambush intervention approach – breakfast radio DJ’s excluded. The most common response is for the team to silently isolate the individual instead.
Now personally, I’ve had to have a a few of those body odour/stink breath conversations with people before. Sooo much fun. Not. I feel awkward and nervous and dread the conversation each and every time, but sometimes it just has to be done.
Unfortunately, there’s no “rules for dealing with sensitive personal subjects” in Scrum. You’ll have to rely purely on soft skills and the approach to take very much depends on the personalities involved. The only guidance I can really give is to put yourself in the other person's shoes first and think about how they might best like to be told bad news. For most people that means privately and in a conciliatory, supportive manner. And please, make sure you have enough self-awareness to realise that if you can’t deliver the message that way then you should go to someone else in the organisation who can and get them to step in for you. First port of call being the HR department, assuming your organisation is large enough to have one.
If this is something you’re facing at the moment, then I wish you good luck!