Helping an employee with personal woes

The performance of one of your best employees has begun to sag. Her last two reports weren't as thorough as they usually are, and she seems distracted and preoccupied. She's even come to work late a few times - something she rarely did before. 

You finally decide to talk to her. Her reasons? "I'm going through a divorce." 
Many people have problems in their private lives that can affect their performance on the job.

As a manager, you are faced with balancing the concern and consideration you feel for your employee with the standards and requirements of the job. 

Some managers feel that employees' private problems should be discussed at home and not at work. They don't want to be "social workers," and they feel uncomfortable discussing personal problems. Other managers feel everything bothering employees should be discussed. These managers tend to get involved in the daily details of employees’ lives and try to give advice. 

I don't think either approach is good for the employee, the manager or the organization. 

It's necessary to strike a balance between empathy and the bottom line. Your employee needs to feel supported but must also understand he or she still is responsible for getting the job done. 

If a manager shows no concern for an employee during a traumatic personal time, he or she is likely to resent that manager long after the crisis has ended. They may think, “Why should I go the extra mile for him when he doesn't care about me?” 

On the other end of the scale, if an employee is allowed to continually fail to meet job responsibilities, an "understanding" boss soon finds a morale problem among the rest of the employees who are forced to carry the slack. Co-workers are usually more than willing to help out a fellow employee during a rough time but not when they sense that the situation is unfair. These "nice guy" bosses usually wind up feeling bewildered because their employees can't get along like one big happy family.  

As a strong, yet empathetic leader, you need to approach the problem only when it begins to affect job performance. Until that happens, you have no right to interfere in the private life of an employee. 

In my opinion, it is never wise to give personal advice or take sides. Instead, listen intently to the feelings and concerns of your employee. Never say, "She sounds like a jerk. I don't blame you for divorcing her!" Not only are your opinions irrelevant, but if there's a reconciliation, you will have to swallow your words and your embarrassment. Sometimes an employee will use what you say to bolster their argument, which is also dangerous. For instance, “You’re being unreasonable! Even my boss said so!”  

Don't automatically assume you can't assign new or challenging work to the employee. However, it the project has high risk, high visibility, or both, you may consider choosing another employee, or team up the troubled employee with one who is a solid performer. He or she may need a little extra care in the form of extra resources, careful delegation and follow-through, coaching and flexibility. Ask your employee what he or she needs from you to continue to meet job standards. Be willing to consider things like extending a deadline or adjusting work hours. 

Many companies offer an employee assistance program for the purpose of referring employees to outside agencies for counseling. This service is confidential and offers strong support to employees of these companies. No reports are sent to the company. If this type of program is not available, consider suggesting outside counseling. 

Things can become sticky if prolonged personal problems cause a long-term decline in performance. After numerous discussions about the importance of meeting standards, you may be forced to outline the consequences of continued poor performance. Before doing so, however, you must be mentally prepared to carry out those consequences, should the employee fail to improve. It's a judgment call that takes careful thought. Your best bet is to get advice from Human Resources. 

Fortunately, in most cases, the trauma is short-lived and has little impact on an employee’s long-term career. Often, all that's needed from the manager is a willingness to listen. 

A manager who conveys fairness and understanding to an employee with personal problems can go a long way toward inspiring renewed motivation for someone going through a tough time and among other employees who watch from a distance. 

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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