What to Do When Employees' Personal Problems Affect Work

Personal issues often have a way of leaking into your employees' work lives. Before you step in, stop and ask yourself these 3 questions.
April 04, 2014

When it comes to your employees' personal problems, just how involved should you get? What if it's affecting their work? Or even putting their job in jeopardy?

Of course, the best answer is, stay out of it. As David Lewis, CEO of OperationsInc, a Norwalk, Connecticut-based HR outsourcing and cons lting company, puts it, "The less you know about your employees' personal lives, the better off you are."

Getting directly involved with an employee's personal problems, says Lydia Ramsey, a Savannah, Georgia-based business etiquette expert and the author of Manners That Sell: Adding the Polish That Builds Profits, "is like wading into dangerous waters. It will only create more issues in the future."

A Pandora's Box of Problems

While this is spot-on, unimpeachable advice, it's almost impossible not to pick up on an employee's personal problems and sometimes get drawn in, despite your best intentions to remain uninvolved. After all, when somebody you know is hurting, you want to help, even if that just means being a sounding board or shoulder to cry on.

Lewis, who is often called in during HR crises, says that divorces can be especially hard on employees. "I've seen situations where they go through the whole cycle," he says. "The employee discovers their spouse was having an affair, the employee confronts the spouse about it, and then there are meetings with lawyers and restraining orders."

Another frequent personal problem that can intrude on work, Lewis says, is when an employee's child is having disciplinary issues at school and that employee needs time off to meet with school administrators and get their child's problems worked out. Health issues that require time off, like cancer or surgery, also crop up. "Money [issues] also often rear their ugly head, such as when an employee is deep in debt," Lewis says. "Another very common employee problem I see is alcoholism."

And even if it's your policy to remain uninvolved, sometimes it feels impossible not to do anything to help. Even Lewis, an HR expert with 45 employees of his own, admits he has broken his own rules from time to time. He's advanced paychecks to employees and given paid time off to two staff members so they could address their drug problems. And while some of the issues were temporary and fixable, in the latter case, the paid days off were ultimately a waste—both staff members were ultimately terminated because of their drug issues.

To Help or Not to Help?

If you think of your employees as family and often treat them as such, how can you decide when to step in and when to stay out of it? To help you assess the situation, here are three questions you should ask yourself before getting involved:

1. How well do you know the employee?

Clearly, the quality of your relationship should be a factor in your decision. You may feel more comfortable helping a longtime employee than the worker who came on board two months ago.

Scott McAdam, who runs McAdam Landscaping in Forest Park, Illinois, with his partner and brother, Rob, says their company has a practice of lending one week's wages to their workers. It's an interest-free loan, and whatever employess borrow—up to $600—is taken out of future paychecks for the next four to six weeks.

But McAdam, who has 20 full-time staffers and as many as 85 employees during the company's busy season from spring to fall, says it's a policy that's utilized sparingly and is only available to workers who've been at the company for a while. As McAdam says, "I'm not giving a check to somebody I've never met before."

2. Will helping the employee benefit the company?

We're not suggesting you should turn someone away if there's nothing in it for your company. In fact, sometimes good business means occasionally forgetting that you're running a business. But it may be easier for you to get involved if it's a win-win for both you and your employee.

That's exactly why McAdam decided to co-sign a car loan for one of his best employees about two years ago. "I wouldn't recommend this," McAdam says twice, before discussing one of his longtime employees who had a lot of problems in his younger days and had never gotten around to getting a driver's license.

"When I was asked him why, he told me, 'My dad never had time for me,'" McAdam says. He and the other top brass at the company helped the employee get his license. Later, when the employee was going to purchase a car with a high-interest loan (which McAdam knew would only hurt his employee's finances), he ended up taking him to his own bank and co-signing a 7 percent car loan for close to $9,000.

"The [loan] was a personal decision made by me and not the company," McAdam says. In other words, if the loan isn't paid off, he's on the hook—not the business. But as it's turned out, McAdam feels his 35-year-old business is doing better than ever because one of his best employees can now drive on the company's behalf.

Some business owners choose to make helping employees part of their company's culture. That's what Tony Lufti did. From the moment he started Marlu Investment Group some 35 years ago, he began putting a little money aside for his employees to be used for everything from company picnics to employee emergencies. Lufti, whose Elk Grove, California, company is a franchise group and management company with close to 3,500 employees, has helped many of his workers over the years, offering financial assistance for employees' hospital bills and funeral expenses for their loved ones.

"We follow our heart and our hunch, and when we feel the risk is minimized, we do what's right for the employee," Lufti says, adding that he and his managers always make sure they verify any sob story they hear from a staff member, just in case. Setting expectations is also important, Lufti says, because if you don't clarify yourself at the beginning, you could wind up ruining the relationship instead of fostering loyalty and goodwill. So be very clear about what you intend to do—if you're willing to for pay half of your employee's parent's funeral, be sure he clearly understands you're not covering it all.

Lufti admits there is a danger with setting expectations: Not every employee with a problem may be able to be helped. "Sometimes you have to say 'no,'" Lufti says, "and that can be awkward. But for every bad experience, we've had 100 positive ones."

3. Can you help them help themselves?

In other words, maybe you don't have to do much more than lend a supportive ear to your frazzled and stressed employees and be a link to other resources that might help them with whatever problem they're experiencing.

Hands-off help is exactly what Ramsey recommends. While she isn't a fan of direct assistance—like co-signing an employee's loan—she's particularly averse to directly helping if the personal problem is spilling into someone's work performance. But that doesn't mean you have the option to ignore the problem. As Ramsey says, "When you're made aware that an employee is having problems, whether they're financial, marital or health-related, it's your responsibility to help them find the resources that can support them."

Karen Walker, president and CEO of consulting firm ONETEAM in Shelburne, Vermont, echoes that advice and adds that your degree of involvement should hinge on whether the personal problem is affecting the employee on the job. "If it isn't," Walker says, "it shouldn't be followed up on beyond what you feel is appropriate from a personal, empathetic relationship standpoint." If it's affecting their job performance, however, you should have a conversation with them early on.

Why early? Because saying nothing or very little and then waiting for them to fix the problem on their own may seem like a thoughtful gesture, Walker explains, but it actually isn't. If you wait and only step in after the employee has completely fallen apart on the job—when firing them is your only recourse—then you've helped to create "a situation that seems heartless," Walker says. "At this point, the employee has a personal problem and now a professional one as well."

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