What Should You Do When Employees Bring Personal Problems to Work?

I've been managing people for years, but I continue to be conflicted about how to deal with employees who bring personal problems to work.  According to recent research, by Bensinger, DuPont & Associates concludes that forty-seven percent of employees say that problems in their personal lives sometimes affect their work performance. We all know that plenty of personal problems coming through the office door every morning. Sometimes they are subtle; other times more obvious. The more obvious problems can manifest as a lack of concentration, tardiness, absenteeism, and/or lower job performance—just to name a few. What’s a manager to do? On one hand, I want to support my team and help them focus more on their work. On the other hand, some employees, consciously or unconsciously, continue to seek support for personal problems in the workplace, which becomes distracting at work. Current management approaches are divided on this issue. The “old school” approach to managing employee problems is that all employees must leave their personal problems in the parking lot.  This approach basically states, “I am paying you to work, not to work on personal problems.” It is an easier human-resources position to take: less time-consuming, definitely less interpersonal, and perhaps callous. The opposite position goes something like, “If you are having a personal problem, take care of it, then get back to work.” This works fine if the employee’s problem can be solved quickly, but long-term problems typically require more problem-solving time. For example, personal problems like divorce, issues with raising children, addiction, or caring for an elderly parent do not solve themselves quickly and need to be managed over the long term. Neither approach seems to work well.  Some employees want to be treated like family in the workplace. More often, employees simply want to be supported beyond their job activities to make them more productive at work. This sounds reasonable. Perhaps we are approaching a middle ground. When an employee’s personal problems affect job performance, the manager should focus on improving the job performance. We need to listen to our employees, but it is a dangerous and slippery slope for the manager to move his or her focus away from job performance and take on the role of a therapist, confidant, or counselor. However, when measurable, concrete job-performance metrics are not clearly affected and the problem manifests around emotions, attitudes, morale, or negativity with coworkers, the situation becomes more fragile. While I do not have all the answers for each individual case, I can provide some useful tips to help manage employees with problems based on my experiences and consulting observations. The following approaches have been useful to me:

  • Keep discussions work-related. Stay focused on the job. This sounds easy until you start listening to an employee with a serious problem. When the conversation gets too personal or veers off-topic, bring it back to the employee’s job. Perhaps you can make temporary accommodations to working hours, schedule, or work location.
  • Be consistent and fair. While we like to think that a closed-door conversation is private, sometimes the employees on the other side of the door want to know what’s going on. Been there? However you decide to help the employee, remember that other employees will notice and precedents will be established.
  • Provide referral resources if appropriate. Large employers sometimes have employee-assistance programs for those who need counseling. Small employers should know what local government programs and community services might be available to the employee and make referrals as appropriate.
  • Do not ignore the employee if the situation recurs.  If you decide to ignore the problem, it might affect other employees, get worse, or result in employee turnover. While it can be tempting to ignore non-work-related problems, they do tend to get worse. It’s better to address the situation immediately.

How about you? Do you have any useful tips for us when employees bring their personal problems to work? Let us know if you do—and don’t forget to share this article with someone who might need it.

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