When at-home problems come to the office

When At-Home Problems Come to the Office: You Asked, We Answered

What should you do when an employee’s home-life problem spills over into the office and starts affecting their performancein other words, when a personal problem becomes an HR problem? I get questions like this one emailed to me all the time. Here’s one real-life HR question, with names and identifying details changed to protect everyone involved, and my answer. (Understand that the person asking is not a member, so I don’t have all the specifics and can only offer so much help.)

The Question:

I find myself in an awkward situation. I make it a rule to not butt into my staff’s personal lives—but what should I do when their personal life impacts professional life? I noticed about a month ago that a key employee was “off the mark” in regard to her usual and past job performance—which has always been excellent until now. I approached Sarah in private, asking if all was well.

“Oh, you know…the holidays have just been so busy and hectic this year.”

I took it at face-value and accepted her explanation, offering to help in any way needed. I know the holidays can be trying and stressful for many—myself included! The days went by, and while she seemed to act like to her old self directly following our meeting, she soon after reverted to this new, less-than-stellar work ethic. 

I don’t need to share the gory details—let’s just say that both her attitude and aptitude have dropped significantly, and I didn’t know why.

Then, at Target the other day, I ran into a close relative of Sarah’s. She spoke to me like I was already “in the know,” and basically spilled her guts out to me about things I wish I had never heard about. Turns out my employee is having trouble with her marriage—and I feel just awful about it, but I have to do something about her work.

But now that I know, I face an additional problem. How do I deal with this employee and my “secret” knowledge of her problem without embarrassing her? I feel like I’m stuck inside the plotline of an old 60’s sitcom: “I know that you know that I know…” Plus, there’s still the original problem of her performance.

This person has been a great employee for a long time. But this is beginning to affect her work, her attitude, and others in the office. (One of my other long-timers even asked me what I was going to do.) How do I address this, considering my secret knowledge, and the fact that she previously chose to not tell me?

My Answer:

Doctor, you called it correctly—this is an awkward situation. You learned her secret unintentionally, and chances are that Sarah will soon discover what her relative shared with you. But in this moment, it’s important to remind yourself of one thing: You are not her therapist, you are her employer.

This reminder is not to minimize compassion—if she has a long history of being a great employee, you don’t want to kick her to the curb strictly because of recent struggles. But you need to approach her job performance from a professional, not personal, standpoint. If you were a member, I would ask you to pretend you didn’t have the extra information. Here’s where to start, and you will find the best way to do this based on your situation.

Get the exact performance-related issues out on the table. Document to the extent needed, and take the time to create a well-thought-out approach to something we often refer to as a corrective action. In this case, a gentle but firm hand may be the best bet for improvement. Without being too aggressive, you can point out the specific issues she is having and ask for specific and measurable improvements. (Here’s how the pieces of that conversation work, and here’s an example of how to use it in a specific situation.)

Since this particular employee used to be great, to start, try building her back up, and compare her current performance to her past performance. Point out that you are concerned by her current work performance because you know how great she usually is. Let her know that you feel it’s your job to reflect to her how she is being perceived at work—and express confidence that she can take the actions necessary to self-correct. I’d avoid threatening her with consequences in the first couple of rounds because it sounds like she’s not flagrantly doing something wrong, but is simply checked out, and phoning it in.

If that’s the case, list the specific and measurable instances where her behavior indicates that she is checked out: “This is the third time you’ve been late / the second time this week that we’ve had to re-run an insurance claim over some detail you are responsible for / the fourth outburst / the third appointment screw-up in two days. You act as if you are ready to quit, or you don’t want your job. Is that what’s going on?”

You get it the idea. It’s not enough to just say, “you seem different lately.”

If her actions are at a point where you do decide there should be consequences, put careful thought into what they should be. I’d avoid any draconian conversations about cutting her pay, demoting, or sending her home—these actions can have far-reaching legal ramifications and frankly, they never work. Many people don’t realize that these kinds of messages could even make it difficult to win an unemployment case, should it come to that. But if the behavior does not improve, you need to consider that eventually, you’re going to have to communicate that a failure to improve could result in loss of her job.

What About Addressing the Personal Issue?

As to addressing her marital issues? Keep in mind that this other person might tell Sarah that you ran into each other, and if so, Sarah will find out what you know sooner rather than later. I would not bring it up at all. If she brings it up in the context of a particular incident, address it separately from the corrective action discussion. Be straightforward, concise, and offer your condolences. Assure her of your discretion. Let Sarah take the lead on discussing it further, but keep in mind, you need less knowledge about non-work-related issues, not more. So as you listen to her, make sure your wrap-up lets her know that you really want the focus kept on issues that have to do with work.

I wish you the best of luck, Doctor. This a is a tough situation that requires finesse. Should anything change, or if you need more guidance, please don’t hesitate to call me. CEDR will be here you.

Friendly Disclaimer: This information is general in nature and is not intended to provide legal advice or replace counsel about a specific issue with an attorney or HR expert. This material is meant to provide information that is believed to be current as of the date of this post.

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