Issues and events in an employee’s life outside of work may affect the employee’s state of mind at work. It might be a new thing or long-standing; long-lasting or passing; big or not so big; sudden or gradually unfolding. In some cases the personal problem is obvious, or it might be a bit of a mystery at first.
The correlation between work and life
When something is happening in an employee’s life outside of work that negatively affects the employee at work, it can be very serious. For instance, it might be a clear medical issue—- perhaps a newly discovered or acquired illness, or disability of the employee himself (or a close family member). In such cases, you would understand fully that it is not your job to try to be that employee’s doctor. Make sure you respect that individual’s rights and privacy—- make any reasonable accommodations that you can for the person. Be kind and decent. Perhaps your organization has some kind of employer-sponsored resources, such as EAPs (“employee assistance programs”), that can help the employee. You should help that employee find the right resource. Understand that the employee might have to take some time off—- whatever sort of paid and unpaid leave is available for medical needs. Direct the employee to HR.
Not all issues are so straightforward. You just never know how employees are going to respond—- at work or otherwise—- to the things happening in their personal lives. Most people try to compartmentalize those personal challenges and keep them out of work. Some people don’t or won’t. Sometimes they can’t.
Everyone has a personal life
Remember that everybody—-everybody—- has a personal life. Some personal lives are more challenging than others. But everybody has personal challenges. There are some personal issues that are tough for anyone—-even the most private compartmentalizer—- to keep under wraps. The whole range of serious and difficult personal issues that affect human beings can show up at work in an employee at any time: Substance abuse, violence (domestic or otherwise), abuse (violent or otherwise), divorce, death, birth, fire, floods, depression, compulsion, among many others.
Over the years, I’ve seen so many managers get drawn in to such highly personal matters with employees. It’s almost always a mistake. Don’t do it. It is time-consuming and almost never works. Sometimes there are negative repercussions that are hard to shake.
A manager’s role
Managers often ask me, “When an employee is wearing his personal pain on his sleeve at work, don’t you need to acknowledge that and ask about it?” The answer: Yes, of course. The best practice in this situation is to be aware, be kind, and be brief about it.
The question you should ask yourself is, “How much do you need to know about what’s going on in an employee’s personal life?” The answer: You probably want to know enough to be polite. What you need to know is how an employee’s personal life bears on his role at work.
It is not your job to be any employee’s therapist. You are not qualified and it’s not appropriate. Neither should you try to be any employee’s life coach or counselor. You should not, nor do you need to, be trying to help this person manage or solve his/her problems at home. You need to help this person manage and solve his/her problems at work.
It’s clarifying to reframe this very complicated issue in clear and simple terms: “Is this person having troubles at work?” No matter what the problem is outside of work, what you need to do is make it completely clear that what’s going on at work is 100 percent the work. That’s not just hard-nosed boss talk. That can also be a real kindness.
Acknowledge that something may be going on outside of work. Ask if the employee wants to share with you the nature of the issue. Stop and evaluate whether or not your knowledge of that personal issue now obligates you to take action at work: Does the issue pose a danger to anyone at work? Evaluate whether this person is going to need some time off, and/or whether there are employee assistance resources that might help this person. If not, then the biggest favor you can do for this person and yourself and the rest of the team at work is refocus the discussion on the work: “Here are the performance standards. And here are the concrete expectations. Your time at work is measured entirely by meeting and exceeding those performance standards and concrete expectations. Exceed those standards and expectations and no matter how bad you might be feeling outside of work, you can feel great about your time here.”
Of course, if an employee simply cannot leave those personal issues outside of work—- if the employee cannot at least meet the standards and expectations at work – then the employee might need some time off or a leave of absence, or to be removed from the job entirely. You should always make every effort to help this employee avail himself of any employee assistance resources you possibly can. You could even volunteer to help personally somehow, outside of work. You can and should be very kind. But you just can’t have that person at work if he is not able to perform at work.
Maybe you are thinking, “Ah, but these are the very special cases.” Indeed. But remember, every employee is a special case. Some are just much better at hiding that fact at work than others. Keep your eyes and ears open for the signs and symptoms of personal issues outside of work, but keep your ongoing dialogue focused on the work.
When addressing personal issues with an employee:
- Acknowledge that something may be going on outside of work and ask if the employee wants to share with you the nature of the issue.
- Do not try to help employees manage or solve his/her problems at home.
- Make it 100 percent clear that what’s going on at work is 100 percent the work.
- Evaluate: Does the issue pose a danger to anyone at work? Does this person need time off or time away? Are there employee assistance resources that might help this person?
- Refocus the ongoing discussion on the work: Performance standards and concrete expectations.