Performance counseling versus personal counseling - what is the manager's role?

Dear Joan,
We have an employee who has been perfect for the three years she has worked with us. She does a great job as a secretary and is extremely efficient and a superb and reliable asset.  

About three months ago, her performance started going down dramatically. For the first time she started showing up late, neglecting responsibilities, etc. This performance is directly tied time-wise to a new boyfriend she has who has all kinds of problems (drugs, family, legal, you name it.) He has dragged her down quite a bit and she has gone from happy and energetic to fatigued and in constant crisis control mode for his numerous problems. The secretary is young and impressionable and against the best wishes of her family has continued on this track.  

What should we do? Is it our place to counsel about problems in someone’s personal life? As much as we would like to, we have resisted the urge to say, “Listen to your family and leave this loser before he drags you down further.” We have never involved ourselves in the personal matters of employees before and since this problem is not directly with her, it makes it even harder.   

I know we can counsel her that if her performance continues on this track she well be terminated but, since we know she is capable of great performance, we would hate to terminate her for a temporary problem. Also, terminating her would probably cause even more problems in her personal life and she could become a permanently unproductive member of society.  Any ideas?  

Everyone should be so lucky. This young woman has an employer who really cares about her. Unfortunately, this bum has his hooks in her and if she won’t listen to her family, there’s a good chance she’ll turn a deaf ear to you, too.  

Let’s play out a few scenarios. If you take a counseling role with this employee and suggest that she dumps him before he ruins her, you could get several reactions. She may be surprised that you care enough about her to say something and take it seriously. However, it’s more likely that she will resent the intrusion into her personal life and tell you to but out.   

This situation reminds me of a woman I know, who married someone who was disliked by all of her friends. We debated about whether or not to say anything to her before the wedding, since all of us could see a disaster in the making. Someone did step forward to voice concerns regarding this woman’s fiancĂ©. As expected, she was quite offended and defensive. As a result, she has pulled away from her circle of friends. 

If this employee’s family has stepped in and told her of their concerns—and she has ignored them—chances are she will ignore and perhaps resent you, too.  

However, you are wise and appropriate to step in and have a serious discussion about your observations of her performance. I would have a talk with her and also document the discussion in memo form, for extra impact. Since she has a strong work ethic, this may stun her and make her take a step back to reassess her relationship. Site specific behaviors you have witnessed and mention the frequency and when this behavior started. She will know there is a connection to her relationship, without you even mentioning it.   

It could sound something like this, “Barbara, you have always been a wonderful secretary. You’ve been reliable and extremely efficient. That’s why it’s so troubling to me that your behavior has changed so suddenly. About three months ago, you started coming in late, some of your work has been neglected (give specific examples). You don’t have the energy you once had. I care about you as a person, as well as an employee, and I don’t want to see your performance continue down this path. In fact, it’s only fair to tell you that if it continues, your job could be at risk. I would hate for that to happen, so that’s why I’m talking to you about it before it gets any worse.”  

If you have an EAP (Employee Assistance Program), tell her you want her to call and set up an appointment to speak to one of their counselors. Because this is having an impact on her performance, you can mandate that. If your company doesn’t have an EAP, you may want to provide some financial support on a limited basis for her to go talk with a professional. If she has been a valuable employee (and you would do it for others in the organization), it may be a way for you to help her without becoming the counselor, yourself.  

If she continues down this treacherous road and hits bottom, it may be enough for her to realize that she has to get her life back on track. Even it she does lose her job, you may want to consider her for rehire, if she dumps the loser. In the case of my friend, who finally got a divorce, she came back to the old friends who greeted her with open arms.

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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