You need to be empathetic and compassionate while also being professional and keeping your team productive.
We all have life events that distract us from work from time to time — an ailing family member, a divorce, the death of a friend. You can’t expect someone to be at their best at such times.
Managing an employee who is going through a stressful period is “one of the real challenges all bosses face,” says Linda Hill, professor at Harvard Business School and author of “Being the Boss.” You need to be empathetic and compassionate while also being professional and keeping your team productive. It’s a fine line to maintain, says Annie McKee, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and author of “How to Be Happy at Work.”
Here’s how to manage an employee going through a personal crisis.
Make yourself available. If you maintain an atmosphere of compassion in the office, people are more likely to proactively come to you when they’re going through a tough period.
Don’t pry. As a leader, you need to be able to show empathy and care, but you also must avoid becoming an employee’s personal confidante.
Listen first, suggest second. An employee may just want a sounding board about the difficulties of caring for a sick relative or an opportunity to explain why a divorce has affected their attention span.
Know what you can offer. You may be more than willing to give a grieving employee several weeks of leave, or to offer a woman with a high-risk pregnancy the ability to work from home. But the decision isn’t always yours to make.
Make sure they’re doing OK. Whether you’ve settled on a solution yet or not, check in with your employee occasionally by dropping by their desk (keeping their privacy in mind) or sending a brief email.
Consider workload. If there are people who are willing and able to take on some of the individual’s projects, you can do that temporarily. Just be sure to reward the people who are stepping in. And then set timelines for any adjustments you make.
Be transparent and consistent. Be conscious of the fact that other employees will take note of how you treat the struggling colleague and will likely expect similar consideration if they too run into difficult times in the future.
Carolyn O’Hara is a writer and editor based in New York City.