The Supervisor Sandwich

Mark Sagor

sandwich-10Some days it feels that way.

You’re a manager with an ever lengthening task list and rapidly approaching deadlines and you worry that your blood pressure and stress level may be reaching new heights.

Then one of your employees, let’s call him Ted, walks in the office and asks: “Have you got a minute to talk?”

Freeze frame.

You are a caring person and you pride yourself on being a team leader who takes the time to know your people. You have taken the time to learn something about each employee’s family and outside interests. You don’t want to be rude but you are reasonably certain this conversation is going to take longer than “a minute.”

Welcome to the Supervisor Sandwich.

Managers are called upon every day to balance the priorities of their employer with the individual needs, problems and preferences of their employees.

On the one side are production schedules, strategic priorities, budgets, policies, procedures, customer needs and competition to consider.

On the other side are individual employees and all the intricate complications and requirements (financial, health, relationship, career, families etc) of their lives.

Smack in between is the manager who is the bridge between what the organization wants to accomplish and the people who are responsible for getting the work done, i.e. the Supervisor Sandwich.

Sometimes served with an unappetizing side order of humble pie.

So back to Ted who has just walked into your office and asked for a “minute” of your time.

What can you do?

My advice is, before you respond, ask yourself two questions:

  1. Does Ted come to you frequently with personal problems?
  2. Does Ted have significant job performance issues (attendance, work quality or quantity, conflicts with other employees etc.)?

If your answer to either of these questions is “Yes” start think about how you might delegate some of the responsibility for helping Ted to your Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

One of the most important functions of an EAP is to provide support, consultation and assistance to managers who are caught between the conflicting demands of managing performance and being supportive to employees who are struggling with personal problems.

So, for example, if Ted does come to you frequently with personal issues but doesn’t have any performance problems I would recommend that, at some point, you remind Ted that the company provides a free and confidential EAP to assist employees with a wide range of personal and family problems.

You would be doing him a favor since some employees are not fully aware of the many ways EAPs can help them and their families.

If, on the other hand, Ted does have significant performance issues (which you believe maybe related to personal problems) I would recommend that you call both your HR partner and EAP consultant and develop a plan for a more structured and formal referral to the EAP. (For a more detailed explanation of the referral process see Comprehensive EAP’s Supervisor Manual or Orientation for Managers and Human Resources).

Don’t let the strain of the moment dictate your response. It’s OK to buy a little time and tell Ted “Let’s talk a little later, I’m feeling swamped right now.”

However, before you sit down to talk with Ted, consider whether it makes sense to offload some of the responsibility for helping him to your EAP.

It’s a simple and effective way for you to offer tangible assistance to an employee and, at the same time, extricate yourself from the role conflicts and stresses that often accompany getting enmeshed in employee personal problems.