Showdown In Toronto: When Personal Problems Become Business Liabilities

Mark Sagor



torontoOrganizations face daunting challenges when it comes to effectively managing employees whose personal problems begin to interfere with their work performance.

Just ask the city of Toronto.

The headlines concerning Rob Ford, Toronto’s embattled mayor, have progressed from sensational to almost unprintable in just a matter of days.

We have been deluged by a steady media stream of Mr. Ford’s improbable denials, YouTube “gotcha” moments, self-serving apologies, and defiant acts of verbal and physical aggression.

What can an organization do when an employee’s personal problems become so disruptive? How does an employer balance concern for the employee with obligations to customers and other employees?

This very public case unfolding in Canada gives us a glimpse of the kind of drama that ordinarily takes place behind closed doors.

Mr. Ford’s employer, represented by the Toronto City Council earnestly recommended that he take time off and get appropriate medical help.

Their suggestion that he had a problem and needed help outraged Mr. Ford who claimed it was based on bias, hypocrisy and animosity. He was dramatic and animated as he tried to turn the tables by repeatedly challenging Council Members to answer his question: “Have you ever, ever smoked marijuana?”

Toronto is Canada’s largest and richest city, but even the resources of a world class municipality have proved no match for effectively managing this one troubled employee.

I have been advising organizations on similar matters for thirty years. This case has at least three things in common with most of those other situations:

1. The employee and employer do not agree on the relevant facts and how to best proceed

2. There is a high level of emotionality from the employee

3. The employer feels caught between a rock (their obligation to manage employee performance) and a hard place (their uncertainty about what the employee’s problem is and the employee’s right to privacy)

So what should an organization do when confronted with an employee whose performance becomes so problematic?

When managing problem situations there may be significant variability in safety concerns, disciplinary policies, and employee longevity and competence, however I think the following are valuable general guidelines for responding to a troubled employee:

1.    Make sure you keep your focus and your facts straight. Limit your comments to areas where you have expertise, credibility and authority, i.e. work performance. Discuss issues only in the language of measurable and observable behaviors. You can address social behaviors (as they affect team morale and communication) but do not speculate on motives or over generalize. Saying, “you spoke in a very loud voice and poked your finger aggressively in Mike’s chest yesterdayis much more effective than saying, “You obviously have an anger problem, judging by your last  interaction with Mike”.

2.    Be prepared to weather an emotional storm. Employees who are having serious problems are often only one “straw” removed from tears or rage. Don’t let the employee’s emotional response sidetrack the discussion. Take the time you need to help the emotions settle before proceeding but don’t abandon the conversation or get sidetracked.

3.    Limit information to those with a “need to know”. Respect employee privacy by limiting the team dealing with the performance issue to those in the direct chain of command, human resource and EAP.

4.    Don’t ever offer anything resembling a “diagnosis.” Even if you think the employee has an alcohol problem, keep it to yourself. Stay focused on observable workplace behavior.

5.    Get your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) involved sooner rather than later. The EAP consultant is professionally qualified to confidentially help the employee deal with personal problems. By delegating this function to an independent consultant the management team is free to focus exclusively on job performance and not feel like they are abandoning the employee or ignoring difficult personal issues in the process. The earlier this delegation occurs the higher the chance of a successful outcome.

These are high stakes situations, especially when the employee has unique or critical skills and a long positive service history. While employers can’t always control the outcome they can improve their chances by following these basic protocols.

I am hoping that we won’t see Mr. Ford in the news for a while and that, far removed from the media glare, he gets the assistance he needs.