There’s a naive belief among many new managers that employee personal problems should be irrelevant to job performance and therefore something that managers can ignore. We like to believe that when employees walk through the office door, all of their personal problems are left behind. To managers with this belief, employees are like robots: treat them all the same way and just focus on the work.
But the fact is that people are not like robots. And as much as we would like to believe that personal life doesn’t impact a person’s work, it very much does. Exhausted new parents suffering from lack of sleep due to a crying infant aren’t able to be as creative as they’d like. Workers dealing with problems at home often find their minds wandering, and don’t do their best work. Employees who are in pain — either physical or emotional — don’t operate at peak levels.
It’s our job as managers to get the best work out of our employees. But it’s also part of our job to keep our employees motivated and happy so that they will continue to be a contributing part of our organization for the long term. And to do that well we have to know the employees as individuals, and to help them through some of the personal issues that interfere with their ability to do their best work.
Here are some tips on how to help employees with their personal problems:
Often it’s enough to just listen to the employee, be sympathetic, and offer kind words of encouragement. But pay close attention to the difference between listening to an employee and solving the employee’s problem. Remember that it’s up to the employee to solve his or her own problem. You can listen, but you shouldn’t try to take charge of getting a solution.
2. Refer employees to appropriate resources
As much as you would like to give personal advice, it’s seldom the best course of action. A better approach is to steer employees toward professional counselors or clergy, or at least refer them to understanding and sympathetic family and friends.
If you have personal experience with a similar problem, then you can tell your own story and describe your solution. But be careful to keep the focus on the employee — it’s not about you, it’s about them. And don’t try to solve the employee’s problem yourself or try to force your own solution on the employee — just gently push the employee toward finding their own personal solution.
3. Accommodate short-term needs
Be as flexible as you can in making temporary accommodations to help the employee through a crisis. But make sure you communicate that these changes are in fact just temporary. Work out a date when the accommodations will end, or at least a date when you will get together with the employee to reassess the situation.
4. Be flexible in working hours or working location
This is usually one of the easiest accommodations to make. Give short-term time off if it’s needed (use vacation or sick time if it’s available). Or if the problem will continue for a while, then maybe work can continue as is but with a revised working schedule (e.g., come in an hour later, but leave an hour later to make up for it). Or maybe the employee can work from home on certain days. Offer alternatives which meet the needs of the employee.
5. Temporarily assign an employee to different work that is better suited for the employee’s current state of mind
This is a more extreme accommodation but it may be required in certain situations. For example, you may temporarily assign a project manager to other work, putting someone else in place as temporary project manager. Or for an employee who typically travels a lot for the company, you may temporarily assign the employee to a job that requires little or no travel.
6. Make it clear that these are short-term accommodations
It’s important to make it clear to the employee that long-term continuation of these accommodations may ultimately result in a change in job title and/or reduction in pay. Don’t make this a threat — just let the employee know that you’re willing to let things slide for a while, but ultimately the employee will be expected to deliver the same level of performance that was previously provided.
7. Keep in touch with the employee during the crisis
Monitor the situation to ensure that the employee is in fact taking steps to resolve the situation. Provide encouragement and positive reinforcement along the way.
8. When the crisis has passed, refocus the employee on the steps needed for success and career advancement
Congratulate the employee on making it through a difficult situation. Then provide assistance to help the employee get back the focus that they once had.
Every employee is an individual with their own personal strengths and issues. You can’t expect to take advantage of an employee’s strengths without occasionally running up against some of the issues. Management is about achieving business results by focusing resources, and to properly focus human resources you’ll need to deal with employee personal problems.