When it comes to balancing work and personal life managers have a double challenge. They not only have to figure out how to make work and home trade offs for their own well-being, they are also charged with the responsibility to be fair and responsive to their employees who are trying to manage the same challenges. Employees routinely talk their supervisors about personal problems that may be affecting their behavior at work.
Most managers do their best to be sympathetic to the issues employees share with them (let’s leave the one’s who don’t for another blog). They try to be understanding and fair and flexible. However, the manager can become conflicted and stressed when, despite their best efforts to be helpful, the employee’s performance (or attendance) continues to be problematic.
They are conflicted because, on the one hand, they are trying to help an employee who has opened up to them, and on the other, the employee’s failure to improve their performance is undermining their relationship with that employee. The supervisor may begin to feel exploited and worry about the consequences of the employee’s poor performance on the group and on their credibility as a manager.
Depending on how intimate the employee’s sharing of problems has been, the manager may experience severe role conflict. As one manager put it: “Here I am trying to be a good person and help out an employee who is going through significant personal difficulties. At the same time I am not successfully managing the employee’s performance. All the sympathy and sharing with this employee has made it much harder for me to firmly and neutrally require improved performance. I am starting to get angry about it which doesn’t help.”
If you are a manager, this dilemma may sound familiar. Some managers will tell you that this is the reason they never talk to employees about anything personal. In my opinion, that’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Managers need to find the middle ground between refusing to talk at all and getting over involved.
The middle ground strategy works very well when the manager partners with his organization’s employee assistance program (EAP). The manager has to trust his own instincts about when a conversation with an employee is shifting from “need to know” to “too much information”, especially if that employee already has performance or attendance problems.
When the manager feels the conversation tipping toward “too much information” I recommend saying something like: “I am really sorry to hear about the problems you are having but I feel like I am really out of my depth trying to advise you about these matters. Fortunately, our company has an EAP that has professional staff who are experts in these matters. The service is free and it’s confidential. I would be glad to help you connect with them. Meanwhile I can keep our relationship focused on what I know best which is helping you to succeed with your responsibilities here at work.”
This approach allows the manager to maintain a helpful and sympathetic posture vis a vis the employee’s personal issues while affirming their primary supervisory focus on work performance. It’s a win-win: the employee gets the benefit of effective professional assistance with their personal problem from the EAP and the manager avoids additional role conflict.
Remember, a quality EAP is structured to be a worksite based program which works in partnership with supervisors to help employees whose personal problems are showing up in the workplace. Organizations that take advantage of this feature of their EAP’s can save themselves unwanted conflict and stress and drama by helping employee’s get effective and immediate assistance to solve problems that are interfering with work performance.