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<i>Dear Workforce</i> How Should I Handle An Employee Who Has Attempted Suicide

October 29, 2000
Q

Dear Workforce:

My issue is a part-timer who has had lots of personal problems and whoattempted suicide over the weekend. The sister of the part-timer called hersupervisor here, who told her supervisor, who told me. The first supervisorinsisted on telling the other members of her work team, against my strong adviceto the contrary.

In addition, because much of the part-timer's work is out in the communityworking with volunteers, we have already had a call from one"outsider" asking what was up. My advice to those who know is torespond to inquiries with, "Margie has some personal issues she has to takecare of and she is on leave for a period of time, but we don't know how long atthis point."

Is there anything else I should be doing? What about the rest of the staff,who may learn of this as gossip through the grapevine (I don't have greatconfidence in people's ability to keep something like this quiet). Any thoughtswould be greatly welcome.

--Susan, director, Human Resources

A Dear Susan:

You certainly are right to be concerned on several levels: a) the privacyrights of Margie, b) the unprofessional actions of the first supervisor, c) thegrapevine effect and, perhaps even more unsettling, d) employees fearful thattheir confidentiality might be compromised in the future.

The above issues invite parallel strategic interventions:

  1. Privacy rights of Margie. Your suggested response to inquiries aboutMargie was right on point. I also can anticipate some further problemsolving; for example, the need to meet with Margie to inform her that thefirst supervisor inappropriately spoke of her condition to other teammembers.

    If Margie wants to express her anger about this with the supervisor, youmay need to hold a meeting. Assuming you have an Employee AssistanceProgram, you may want to bring in a counselor to help facilitate thisconflict resolution process.

    Also, Margie might conceivably wish to address her team members uponreturn, though this may be less likely. If she does, I recommend EAPcoaching for you, Margie and the first supervisor. He not only needs toapologize to Margie one-on-one, but needs to acknowledge his error with theentire team.

  2. Unprofessional supervisory actions. A verbal reprimand -- if notsome warning note in the supervisor’s record -- seems appropriate in lightof both her not respecting privacy rights and her deviating from your"strong advice." (In the future, a direct order would be better.)If there is not a strong confidentiality policy in the personnel and/orsupervisory manual, remedy this ASAP.

    Consider using this incident for having EAP training on employee privacyrights and supervisory responsibilities for insuring confidentiality for allmanagement personnel. I think this sends the right message to all personnel.

  3. Grapevine effect. Unfortunately, rumor happens and can't beabsolutely suppressed. Also, when the issue involves extreme, uncontrollablehuman behavior (suicide attempt, workplace shooting, etc.) team members'anxiety levels naturally rise: What pushed the person to the edge? Was ithis or her personal life or work environment? Some colleagues will wonder ifthey face a similar predicament, while others may try to block out theseconcerns and passive-aggressively act them out, e.g., being argumentative,coming in late, etc.

    Of course, facts will invariably become more distorted as the rumor millsand cycles around the team, department and organization. And while peoplemay push you to clarify "What's going on with Margie?" you have tohold to your professional response. You may need to allow the team to venttheir frustration at the "lack of solid information." Aspreviously mentioned, some of the frustration may stem from the anxietystirred by proximity -- physical and emotional -- to a traumatic event. Somemay be angered that management did not recognize Margie's vulnerable statenor provide assistance soon enough. Others may feel guilty for notintervening soon enough.

    Also, if there has been any significant preexisting covert or overttension in the work team or between the work team and larger organizationalsystems, employee trauma can become a catalyst for the indirect surfacing ofor acting out of anxiety and anger. Again, individual and/or group"critical incident" debriefing with an EAP counselor or trainedconflict resolution consultant may help personnel work through anypost-traumatic issues.

  4. Employees fearful of losing their privacy rights. Finally,addressing the confidentiality problem comprehensively as outlined above isvital for assuring all employees that upper management understands thatprivacy rights is a critical part of a healthy and productive workenvironment. If one person's rights are violated and the dysfunctionalcomponents i.e., the supervisor's behavior and management's and HumanResources' response to the same are not addressed -- through reprimand andretraining -- then employee trust and morale will be compromised in the longrun.

SOURCE: Mark Gorkin, the "StressDoc," Washington, D.C.

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