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We all have life events that distract us from work from time to time — an ailing family member, a divorce, the death of a friend. You can’t expect someone to be at their best at such times. But as a manager what can you expect? How can you support the person to take care of themselves emotionally while also making sure they are doing their work (or as much of it as they are able to)?
What the Experts Say
Managing an employee who is going through a stressful period is “one of the real challenges all bosses face,” says Linda Hill, professor at Harvard Business School and author of Being the Boss. Most of us try to keep work and home separate, but “we all have situations in which our personal and professional lives collide,” and how you handle these situations with your employees is often a test of your leadership. You need to be empathetic and compassionate while also being professional and keeping your team productive. It’s a fine line to maintain, says Annie McKee, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and author of How to Be Happy at Work. Here’s how to manage an employee going through a personal crisis.
Make yourself available
“People don’t always feel comfortable telling their boss” that a parent is gravely ill or that they feel stressed out in the wake of a crumbling relationship, says McKee. They may be too overwhelmed, or embarrassed that it is causing them to be late repeatedly or to miss deadlines. Often a manager’s first challenge is simply recognizing the warning signs that an employee is going through a difficult time. Invest time in building good relationships with employees so you’ll be able to detect any problems early on. If you maintain an atmosphere of compassion in the office, people are more likely to proactively come to you when they’re going through a tough period.
As a leader, you need to be able to show empathy and care, but you also must avoid becoming an employee’s personal confidante. After all, your job as manager is not to be the office shrink. So don’t ask a bunch of questions about the employee’s problems. As the person with more power in the relationship, the employee may feel compelled to tell you more than they’re comfortable with. “You want to build a caring relationship with employees, not a friendly relationship,” says Hill. Many managers make the mistake of confusing being liked with being trusted or respected. A good manager “has the ability to read and understand other people’s needs and concerns,” says McKee, while still keeping everyone focused on the major task at hand: accomplishing work.
Listen first, suggest second
When you speak to an employee about their current struggles, “listen first instead of immediately advocating for some particular course of action,” says Hill. They may just want a sounding board about the difficulties of caring for a sick relative or an opportunity to explain why a divorce has affected their attention span. If you immediately suggest they take a leave of absence or adjust their schedule, they may be put off if that’s not what they were thinking. Instead, ask what both of you can do together to address the issue of performance during the difficult period. “Try to use the word ‘we,’” advises Hill, as in “How can we support you?” The employee may have an idea for a temporary arrangement — some time off, handing off a project to a colleague, or a more flexible schedule for a few weeks — that is amenable to you.
Know what you can offer
You may be more than willing to give a grieving employee several weeks of leave, or to offer a woman with a high-risk pregnancy the ability to work from home. But the decision isn’t always yours to make. “You may be very compassionate but you may be in a company where that’s not the way it works,” says Hill. Of course, if you have the leeway to get creative with a flexible schedule, an adjusted workload, or a temporary work-from-home arrangement, do what you think is best. But also be sure you understand your company’s restrictions on short- and long-term leave, and what, if any, bureaucratic hurdles exist before promising anything to your employee. Explain that you need to check what’s possible before you both commit to an arrangement.
If the employee needs counseling or drug or alcohol services, there may be resources provided by your company’s medical insurance that you can recommend. But investigate the quality of those resources first. “The last thing you want to do is send a suffering employee to avail themselves of a program or supposedly helpful people who then fall short,” says McKee.
Check in regularly to make sure they’re doing ok
Whether you’ve settled on a solution yet or not, check in with your employee occasionally by dropping by their desk (keeping their privacy in mind) or sending a brief email. Not only will your employee appreciate that you care, you’ll get a better sense of how they are coping. “You can simply ask, ‘Do you feel like you’ve got a handle on it?,’” says Hill. “And if they do, you can say, ‘Let’s just keep in touch so neither one of us has too many surprises. Or if you get a little over your head, I hope you’ll feel free to come to me and we can do some more problem solving and make further adjustments if necessary.’”
You also have to consider whether prolonged absences will adversely affect clients or team members. If so, mitigate those risks by easing the person’s workload. If there are people who are willing and able to take on some of the individual’s projects, you can do that temporarily. Just be sure to reward the people who are stepping in. And then set timelines for any adjustments you make. If the person knows that their situation will last for 6-8 weeks, set a deadline for you to meet and discuss what will happen next. Of course, many situations will be open-ended and in those cases, you can set interim deadlines when you get together to check in on how things are going and make adjustments as necessary. Whatever arrangements you make, be crystal clear about your expectations during this time period. Be realistic about what they can accomplish and set goals they can meet. “For this to be useful,” says McKee, “it’s got to be specific and it has be grounded in reality.”
Be transparent and consistent
Be conscious of the fact that other employees will take note of how you treat the struggling colleague and will likely expect similar consideration if they too run into difficult times in the future. “If you want to get productive work out of people, they need to trust you and believe that you’ll treat them fairly,” says Hill. Remember that policies may be precedent-setting. Every situation will be unique, but you want to be comfortable with policies in case you are called to apply them again. Keep in mind that solutions could apply to “the next person and the next and the next after that,” says McKee.
Principles to Remember
- Set a tone of compassion in the office. It will not only give your employees confidence to approach you with struggles, but also give you the ability to spot warnings signs.
- Be creative with solutions. A flexible schedule may allow a person to maintain their output without much disruption.
- Check in from time to time, both to reassure the employee and to make sure that further adjustments or accommodations aren’t needed.
- Act more like a therapist than a manager. Your heart may be in the right place, but don’t get involved in your employee’s personal problems.
- Make promises you can’t keep. Research your company’s policies before you offer time off or alternative work arrangements.
- Treat similar situations among employees differently. Employees will note — and resent — the inconsistency.
Case Study #1: Set realistic work goals with the employee and delegate some of their work
Alicia Shankland, a senior HR executive with more than 20 years of experience, managed two different women through the intensely stressful, emotional months of fertility treatment. In both cases, the treatments continued for nearly a year, so the women were away from work frequently for medical appointments and procedures. They also experienced severe ups and downs from the hormone drugs and the emotional devastation of miscarriages.
What’s more, the schedule of fertility treatments didn’t fit neatly into any of the existing standard HR leave policies. “There was no way to make a 30-60-90 day plan to accommodate all the unknowns,” Shankland said.
In each case, she endeavored to make as many allowances as possible, and the women used sick time, flex time, and personal days. She worked with each of them to set concrete, realistic work goals that allowed them to focus on the most critical deliverables while delegating other duties, and teammates pitched in to make sure duties weren’t neglected or dropped. “We managed through it as a tight-knit team,” she says.
A happy outcome was that the team was well prepared to cover for the maternity leaves that were eventually taken by each woman. “It actually showed us all that we could play multiple roles,” Shankland says. When the women returned from their respective maternity leaves, they were both at “110 percent.” Each had “exceptionally successful years at the company that more than made up for the time when they needed extra hands to make it through.”
Case Study #2: Act with compassion and offer flexibility if possible
When David*, a professional at a financial services firm, heard that the husband of one of his team members had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, he knew it was going to be a long and emotional roller coaster for her. Within weeks of the initial, grave diagnosis, doctors suggested that the cancer may not be spreading as fast as initially thought, and that the husband may have months to live, rather than mere weeks. That did little to lessen the emotional devastation. “It was so difficult to predict,” he said. It’s such an emotional time, and “you can’t ask for a timeframe. She wants to have a diagnosis and she wants to be able to maintain a regular work schedule. But she just doesn’t know.” From a manager’s standpoint, he said, “you have to take that burden off the employee.”
David recognized that it would be better to offer the woman more flexibility, a shift she happily embraced. The management team restructured her job away from her responsibilities in client services, which demanded high close rates and availability, to duties that weren’t as time sensitive. “This provided our team with less reliance on her and also gave her the freedom to focus on her important family matters that were the priority,” he said. She also agreed to switch her compensation from salaried to hourly, which allowed the firm the flexibility to carry on the arrangement indefinitely.
Ten months after the diagnosis, she was still with the company in the modified arrangement. “You have to act with compassion,” said David, “while also being responsible to clients and other employees.” Critical to the firm’s success? Making sure they could continue to be flexible. “Sometimes you just don’t know how a situation will end,” David said. “You need to keep an open mind.”
*Not his real name.