You May Not Want to Help, But You Have to Help!

support for employee personal crisis

You May Not Want to Help, But You Have to Help!

An item not included in a Team Leader’s job description, but which they’ll eventually have to deal with, is what to do when a Team Member is having a personal crisis that impacts their job performance and the Team’s productivity.

This is an area new Team Leaders have no experience with and experienced Team Leaders try to avoid. Faced with a Team Member who is dealing with a personal matter impacting their work performance, most Team Leaders are understandably reluctant to intervene. While they recognize the need to address the impact on work performance, they stop after the warning to improve work performance because think they’ll get caught up in a sticky problem so they keep their distance and hope the issue is resolved without their involvement.

This approach doesn’t work anymore.

As I explain in coaching sessions with Team Leaders from the Front Line to the C Suite, as the work environment continues to evolve so does the need to accept the fact that Team Members not only need assistance with their personal issues, but expect it. A Team Leader’s refusal to engage with, and assist, a Team Member who is having personal issues will adversely impact, not only that Team Member, but also the entire Team’s ability to continue to be high performing.

However, a Team Leader’s involvement in a Team Member’s personal issues must be handled properly or it will cause more problems than it solves.

To assist Team Leaders with this uncomfortable situation, I recommend they follow these Six Guidelines as they interact with a Team Member having a personal issue:

Guideline #1: Always Be Looking for Trouble.

Team Leaders need to proactively pay attention to what is going on with individual members of their Team so they can quickly recognize when a Team Member is dealing with an issue. Most personal issues come to a Team Leader’s attention when there is a change in a Team Member’s performance or behavior such as:

  • Performance decreases.
  • Behavior changes. They are emotional, defensive, irritable or belligerent.
  • Tardiness and attendance issues.
  • Exhibiting anxiety or stress.

Guideline #2: Discuss the Issues.

As soon as the Team Leader recognizes the change in performance or behavior they should meet with the Team Member. The purpose of the meeting is to have a confidential conversation with the Team Member to discover what is adversely impacting their work performance. This meeting allows the Team Leader to:

  • Remind the Team Member of their obligation to the Team, and the company, to perform according to agreed upon expectations.
  • Ask what is wrong and hear the reason for the poor performance or bad behavior.
  • Give the Team Member the opportunity to explain the problem and, if necessary, ask for assistance. Often a Team Member is reluctant to ask for help, but asking them what’s wrong gives them the opportunity to tell the Team Leader they need help.
  • However, the Team Member is not required to talk about personal issues. If they don’t want to discuss the situation or ask for assistance, pressure should not be placed on them to do so.
  • If the Team Member doesn’t ask for assistance, the Team Leader should remind the Team Member they are accountable for their continued poor performance or bad behavior, and that he/she is available to meet with them again.

Guideline #3: Be Their Boss, Not Their Friend or Therapist.

Team Leaders are not therapists and should resist the temptation to act like one by not delving too deeply into the Team Member’s personal issues. Nor are they the Team Member’s friend. The boundary between Team Leader and friend should not be crossed at any time because once a Team Leader becomes a friend they can no longer manage and lead the Team Member appropriately. This means only so much personal information should be shared between the Team Leader and Team Member and only so much support given. A Team Leader can care, be compassionate and supportive, but only within the framework of what is necessary for the Team Member to properly perform and meet the expectations of the Team and the company.

Guideline #4: Identify Resources & Limitations.

If the Team Member reveals they are experiencing a personal problem that is impacting their work performance/behavior, the Team Leader should only ask for as much detail as necessary to identify the specific issue – financial, marital, health, family, etc. – and determine where the Team Member can go for qualified assistance (i.e. the HR Department, the Employee Assistance Program, company provided medical benefits, company leave of absence policy).

If necessary and possible (within the company’s policies and the Team’s business requirements), the Team Leader should accommodate a Team Member’s request for considerations to help them deal with their personal issues (i.e. time off, a different starting/quitting time, a lighter work load). But this accommodation should only be temporary, with an agreed upon end date. The Team Leader needs to make such accommodations knowing that other Team Members will observe how this Team Member is being treated and will expect similar accommodations if they have personal issues.

Guideline #5: Be Supportive—Without Getting Sucked In.

The Team member needs to be held accountable for resolving the crisis. Even though they may be going through a difficult time, a Team Leader is still responsible for ensuring the Team’s work gets done, and cannot allow an employee to operate in crisis mode indefinitely. Although a Team Leader should try to assist a Team Member they should not attempt to solve their problems.

After giving the Team Member the information about where they can go for assistance and making whatever accommodations are possible and necessary, the Team Leader needs to step away and allow the Team Member to seek the available assistance on their own. Any further involvement in attempting to resolve the Team Member’s personal issues will not end well.

Guideline #6: Follow Up.

After accommodations are made and assistance arranged, the Team Leader needs to periodically check in with the Team Member to determine how they are doing. But not to elicit details or to participate in resolving the issues or offering personal advice. The point is to show compassion and caring but only in the context of a professional, not personal, relationship.

The Bottom Line:

If you think problems in Team Members’ personal lives have nothing to do with how they perform their jobs, you’re wrong. According to research by Bensinger, DuPont & Associates.

  • 47% of employees say that problems in their personal lives affect their work performance;
  • more than 16% reported their personal issues caused absenteeism; and
  • nearly 50% said it was hard for them to concentrate at work because of personal issues,

Team Members increasingly bring their personal issues to the workplace and expect the Team Leader and the company to help them. Rather than avoiding this reality, effective Team Leaders, who care about their Team Members recognize when someone on the Team is struggling with personal issues. They then try to identify the problem, assist in finding a solution, and provide support (and limits) to help those Team Members. They also know when and where to draw the line so they are acting professionally and not personally and are supportive but not interfering.

While this “walking the tightrope” approach is difficult, it is required and following these Six Guidelines makes it easier not to fall off the tightrope.

Questions or comments are requested – even the critical ones! As a “recovering” lawyer, I love a good debate.

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