How to Manage Employees Through Tough Times

How can managers lead employees going through tough times? CaPP Institute instructor and PCC, Lisa Samson shares some expert advice to help you lead with confidence and compassion.  

As an Organizational Development Consultant (both internal and external) and Leadership Coach, here’s what I tell my clients about dealing with or managing an employee going through tough personal times:

First of all, this is life. 

Don’t blame the employee for their situation. 

What they need is compassion and radical empathy. They are already going through a hard time – they don’t need a boss lauding their performance requirements over them. Set the stage for an open and safe place to talk and share. Set boundaries around confidentiality – what you will not share (personal details) and what you will be required to share (e.g. if the employee indicates that they might harm themselves or others).

Monitor – see how the employee is doing. 

Some employees may find that work is a safe place and refuge from their personal issues. Other employees may find that work is adding to their stress. Stay in dialogue with the employee about what they need at that time. Don’t expect that just because one day goes well, everything is on an upswing. Your employee’s moods and ability to cope will shift from one day to the next, even from hour to hour depending on the phone calls that come in.

Check on your HR policies and let the employee know what can be done.

Is extended leave available? mental health days? sick leave with medical notes? Each workplace will be different – the more support that you and the company can provide to your employee, the better.

Don’t try to make your employee feel “happy” all the time.

If they are going through a tough situation, they are allowed to be sad, upset, frustrated, etc. Talk with them about what this means for workload, project deadlines, and job duties. Make it safe for them to not know (they can keep you posted as it goes) and if they slip, deal with it respectfully – that you understand why they missed a deadline, and that you need more information upfront, as proactive is always better than reactive.

Stay close to HR during this time so that the manager does not make a misstep. 

If the manager is worried about performance, that is a separate conversation. If this is a temporary blip in an otherwise stellar track record, take that into account. Most employees will want to do well, even when they are grieving or having personal difficulties. Most employees will work harder and want to show you that they can do it, despite the difficulties. They may need a boss who helps them to define boundaries, prioritize self-care, and take the time that they really need to be whole and well again.

Life happens.

When managers are able to support their employees emotionally and psychologically, and organizations are set up with positive, supportive HR policies that can be leveraged, the employee will come back stronger, more dedicated, and engaged. It’s a short-term pain for long-term gain.

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