As a manager, there are few things anyone can guarantee as part of your job description. But there’s one thing I can pretty much promise: Whether you have one or 100 employees under your supervision, you’ll eventually have to deal with someone having a personal crisis in the office.
At first glance, helping your employees through a difficult personal issue may seem simple. Be sympathetic and supportive, and make sure they know you’re there for them, right? Actually, there’s much more to it than that. And, as my experiences have shown me, if not handled properly, what started out as a personal crisis could morph into one of a professional nature.
Here are a few tips to help you guide your employee through a difficult personal issue while maintaining a professional relationship and helping everyone get the job done.
Tip #1: Remember You’re the Boss, Not the Friend
I know this sounds harsh—and believe me, it’s probably the hardest part of dealing with an employee in crisis. But, if you blur the line between manager and friend, you could find yourself in a much more difficult situation down the road.
I learned this the hard way in my first role as a manager when one of my employees approached me about a very personal issue. I tried my best to be supportive and told her I was there for her any time she wanted to talk. I even gave her my personal cell number in case she needed something from me after hours.
While my heart was in the right place, I unknowingly set us both up for disaster. As she continued to struggle with her issue, I quickly became more of a friend and therapist than her manager. Understandably, her performance eventually suffered, yet it was nearly impossible to have a frank discussion with her about work after she’d shared so much of her personal life with me.
From that point on, I realized that my job was to enable my employees to address their personal issues as easily as possible while still maintaining order on my team. I could still be there for my employees, but that means giving them time off to deal with the crisis or helping them find resources for support—not being a shoulder to cry on 24/7.
Tip #2: Establish a Timeline and Backups
In my experience, most people dealing with a crisis just need a little time to regroup without the stress of work hanging over their heads. So, if it’s at all possible to give your employee that time off—do.
I had an employee a few years back who had a family member diagnosed with a serious illness. There was no certainty around how much time this person had left, so I wanted to let her be there for her family. We sat down and worked out a timeline, with planned days off or days where she’d leave early, and adjusted her workload to give her a buffer in case something came up. I also teamed her up with another employee, so that all her work could easily be picked up by someone else if needed.
Over the course of several months, she was able to leave early a few times per week for visits and even take a day off occasionally without feeling stressed about work. Fortunately, her family member recovered, and she later thanked me and the rest of the team for the flexibility and peace of mind we’d given her by working with an otherwise unpredictable situation.
Of course, there is a limit to how much time you can reasonably allow before your group’s performance and morale is impacted, and you should definitely gauge what the right mix is for your team. It’s also a good idea to let your other team members know that your employee is dealing with a (unnamed) crisis, and that you appreciate them picking up the extra work in the meantime.
But, by establishing expected time away from the office (as much as you possibly can), and being prepared for planned and unplanned absences, you’ll significantly reduce the stress on everyone involved.
Tip #3: Check In
This is a subtle, yet powerful gesture that will go miles in making your employee feel supported and comfortable at work.
I know this from my own personal experience. My house was robbed a few weeks ago, and after the initial shock had worn off, my boss still checked in on me every few days to see how I was holding up. While there was nothing he could really do, just knowing he was concerned enough to ask was a huge help emotionally.
After the sting of a situation has subsided, check in with your employee occasionally by dropping by his or her desk and asking how things are going or sending a quick email to check in. Knowing that the boss has enough interest in people's personal situations to be mindful of how they're doing even after the initial event has passed will help remind everyone that, while this is a professional environment, the people in it still care about each other.
While most of us try our hardest to keep our personal and professional lives separate, they inevitably cross paths on occasion. And unfortunately, creating an atmosphere of compassion while maintaining professional boundaries isn’t always easy. But keep these tips in mind, and you’ll be on your way to really helping someone through a difficult time.