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When an Employee's Crisis Becomes HR's Problem

December 29, 2000
Related Topics: Work/Life Balance, Stress Management, Featured Article
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What impact does an employee’sdivorce, household fire, or serious illness have on your company? That dependson how you, and others in your organization, handle it. An employee’sunresolved personal problems can walk with him into work on a daily basis.It’s important that you, as the HR manager, are able to help that emotionallyrattled person get connected with the resources he needs to solve his problems.

    While it would benice if we could draw a boundary between home and work, there seems to be an increasing trend for the office and home front to merge. Companies now,more than ever before, are offering EAPs (Employee Assistance Programs) that draw and hold bothnew and established employees. In fact, the ability to balance work and familylife is the single most important job aspect, with 97 percent of workersindicating that it is “important,” and 88 percent saying that it is “extremely important,” according to a recent Rutgers University nationalpoll of 1,000 workers.

    HR has a key role incommunicating with the employee in crisis, directing her toward an EAP that willhelp smooth her problems, and guiding her efforts to return to work as aproductive team member as soon as possible. 

Identifying the Problem
   Before you can deal with a problem, youhave to know that it exists. Sometimes an employee’s personal issues arebrought to HR by a supervisor. Other times, the employee herself will come toyour office and reveal her problems openly. In either case, in your HR role, youwant to communicate to the employee that the company cares about her situationand would like to help.

    “When an employee is first dealingwith a crisis, we have no hope of their being effective on the job,” says DonMcIver, vice president of human resources for MWW Group, a public relations firmin East Rutherford, New Jersey. “My position has always been to support, toempathize with their situation, and to work collaboratively on getting themthrough it.” While the employee describes the problem to you, be sure tolisten carefully. He will likely be upset, and may not be thinking clearly. Ithelps to reassure him that he doesn’t have to worry about his job, and thatyou’ll do whatever you can to help.

    It’s important to find out what employees need from the HR department, and from the company. “Don’tmake assumptions about what they want or need,” warns Ellen Bravo, director of9-to-5, National Association of Working Women, based in Milwaukee. “For somepeople, coming into work every day is exactly what they need to keep themsane.” So listen carefully and ask targeted questions, such as “What can wedo to make this hard time easier for you to deal with?”

Offering Assistance
    During that first crisis conferencewith the employee, give him copies of brochures that describe the EAPs that areavailable, as well as any provisions of the FMLA (Family Medical and Leave Act).Highlight the particular programs you are familiar with that might help him inhis own situation. While most HR departments make a point of distributing EAPinformation during an employee’s initial orientation and provide regularupdates, it’s a good idea to supply an extra copy during a crisis. Many peoplepay little attention to the brochures until they need them. Your ability andwillingness to direct them to resources immediately may motivate them to seekhelp sooner.

    Try to be sensitive to the employee’sdesire for confidentiality. Reassurehim that you’ll maintain whatever degree of privacy he wants. Shouldsupervisors and coworkers, particularly those on his team, be told about it? Tryto honor his wishes whenever possible.

    DeAnne Rosenberg, management consultantand author of A Manager’s Guide to Hiring the Best Person for Every Job,suggests that if the employee wants strict confidentiality, then it’s best togo to her supervisor and explain that you have learned of a personal situationinvolving that employee, and that you’d like for her to have some flexibility.If the supervisor asks, “Well, what’s the trouble?” you can say, “It’spersonal, and it wouldn’t be right for me to divulge the information. Buttrust me, it’s temporary. She’ll soon be back to 100 percent if we give herspace to work things out.”

    If the situation is more open, such asa death in the family, a fire, or a natural disaster, then it may help toprovide grief counseling, not only for the person in pain but for coworkers aswell. Don McIver tells of a situation a few years ago at a previous job, when anemployee’s eight-year-old child was killed in an accident. “Everyone wasupset,” he recalls. The company provided information about the memorialservice, as well as contributions to the charity of choice. They offeredcounseling to the child’s mother as well as on-site grief counseling to thecoworkers who were emotionally affected.

    Jim Dowis, director of employeerelations at Tom’s Foods, Inc., in Columbus, Georgia, credits his company’sopen-door policy with helping an employee deal with an abusive relationship thatbegan spilling into the workplace. The woman and her husband were having maritalproblems. The man harassed her both at home and at work. He phoned herfrequently at her desk and made threats such as, “I’m going to come downthere to work and get you!”

    Fortunately, this employee, who had aneight-year service history with the company, realized that it was beginning toaffect both the quality of her work and the safety of other coworkers. She wentinitially to her supervisor asking for help. Her supervisor suggested that theyspeak to the HR department. 

    Together, the employee, her supervisor,and Dowis discussed the situation, as well as her options. The main concern washer safety, and the safety of others. Dowis explained that they needed hercooperation, because it’s very important in those situations to gatherinformation such as when the calls occurred and what specific threats were made. 

    Dowis immediately contacted the policeand the company security personnel to make them aware of the threats. Securityguards at the plant took the special precautions of checking her car frequently,walking her to and from her car, and reporting all phone contacts by her husbandto the police. The employee also began receiving counseling immediately, andmoved from her residence with the help of coworkers. She also placed a legalrestraining order on her husband, whom she eventually divorced. The harassmentstopped within days of the security and law enforcement actions being taken. 

Being Flexible
   After talking with an employee abouthis needs in getting through a crisis, you’ll often find that what he needsmost is time to repair his personal life. Ellen Bravo points out that from an HRperspective, you have to ask yourself, “What would it mean to us to lose thisemployee altogether? What can we do to make it possible for him to stay?”Usually the answer is to be as generous as you can. 

    According to Bravo, “There’s nomagic formula to determine the right length of time and flexibility. Keep inmind that most people cannot afford to be off without pay, so good employeesaren’t likely to abuse time off. They’re going to be back as soon as theycan, not only for financial reasons but also to restore some order to theirlives.”

    Help the employee establish how muchtime he needs, or what special arrangements must be made, such as a temporaryreduction in workload or work hours. Give him information about his availablevacation days, sick days, short-term or long-term disability, FMLA, leave ofabsence, and any other special options. Make it clear how much paid and unpaidtime he has available through the company. 

   Speakwith the manager or supervisor about other possible options, such as a flexschedule or telecommuting. Percrecia Eubanks at Hallmark says, “Usually themanager will try to accommodate the needs of employees who ask to take time offor [temporarily] change their hours. Perhaps they need to work a part-timereduced schedule, or they need to come in early and work late. Some even need totelecommute for a while. Most individuals can be put on an alternative scheduleand still meet our business needs.” 

    Sometimes an employee who is shatteredby a personal crisis may start to doubt himself or his abilities. He may ask fora reduced workload, or sometimes even a position with less responsibility. Hefails to see that his own performance won’t be permanently affected, but onlytemporarily so.

    Don McIver recalls that the woman whosechild had died came to him after returning from a two-week leave of absence. Shetold him that she no longer wanted to be a manager, but wanted to step down intoa technical support role, which was a position of less responsibility. He urgedher to hold off on making a major career decision until a few months down theroad. He assured her that her workload would be reduced, and some of herprojects temporarily reassigned to other managers, but that she could take onthe projects again when she was ready. If she was still unhappy in her positionin a few months, he would then reconsider a reassignment, because he was surethey’d have another role for her within the company. He also promised toperiodically check back with her and see how she felt. 

    Everyone in the company gave her a lotof latitude in dealing with her grief. Her sadness and despair came in waves. Ifshe needed to come in late or leave early, she was allowed to do so. In time,and with counseling throughout the past four years, the woman has regained herlove of her management position, and has excelled in it. 

Getting Back to Business
   Most employees are willing to help outanother employee who is in crisis. When they know that a coworker is goingthrough a tough time, most people will sympathize and try to help out byaccepting an increased workload, at least temporarily. Eventually, though, eventhe most generous coworkers and supervisors feel the stress of an increasedworkload. That’s when it’s time to check with the employee in crisis to seewhere he stands, and if he’s ready to take on some of the reassigned workload.

    DeAnne Rosenberg recommends that if anemployee’s problems persist, or the company can no longer accommodate, it’simportant to get the employee into action. This is the point at which you throwthe ball back into the employee’s court, perhaps by gently asking, “Iunderstand you’re going through a rough time right now, but what do you thinkyou want to do about it?”

    Rosenberg believes that problemssometimes linger because the employee doesn’t know how to take the next step.Focusing him on what actions he can take helps him switch from the emotionalside of the brain to the thinking side.

    During the time of crisis andimmediately thereafter, an effective HR person often acts as an intermediary,communicating between an employee in crisis and his supervisor. Particularlywhen an employee is gone from the office, it is helpful for the HR staff toperiodically check in by phone to see how he’s progressing, and when he’llbe ready to return to work or to accept a heavier workload.

    McIver believes that it’s helpful tohave a conference with management, apart from the employee, to try to understandthe ongoing personal needs of the employee, and to try to balance them with thebusiness needs of the organization. “Anytime we reach a juncture where thebusiness needs are really suffering, we need to sit down with the employee andexplain the situation. We might say, ‘There are some projects that need yourattention. What can you do here to help us out?’”

    Of course, there are situations inwhich an employee is enmeshed in a personal problem so great, and so ongoing,that she can’t seem to return to an acceptable attendance or performancelevel. In that case, you must get into a progressive discipline mode.Fortunately, however, most employees who have been given special concessionswill respond well when asked by the company to pitch in and help with anincreased business need. 

    By using your company’s available EAP,and by guiding both affected employees and their supervisors through the crisisprocess, you’ll help get that employee back to work. During and after times ofcrisis, many employees grow to appreciate the kindness and compassion shown tothem by their company, and become more loyal employees as a result.

Workforce, January 2001, Vol80, No 1, pp. 64-69  SubscribeNow!

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