Helping Employees Survive A Personal Crisis

Even your best employees can encounter a personal crisis that affects their work performance.  As a manager, you need to know how to recognize the situation, support and encourage the employee, and know when and where to draw the line.

Id 1184 Crisis Communication1

Hepling Employees Survive A Personal Crisis is the second of two posts dealing with personal crisis and how it affects work environments. Today's blog focuses on the employer's perspective and tips on how to handle the situation when it is one of your employees going through the tragedy. Previously, we featured a blog by Aleisa Shute, childhood cancer survivor and creator of a foundation that helps to improve the lives of families which have had a child diagnosed with cancer. To read  Balancing Your Work Life During a Crisis, click here.

Even your best employees can encounter a personal crisis that affects their work performance.  As a manager, you need to know how to recognize the situation, support and encourage the employee, and know when and where to draw the line.

We're not talking about your guy who regularly shows up late or the one who can't come to work because his car broke down or who has the flu or a hangnail.  This is about a reliable employee who always gives you consistently high performance.  But lately something has changed.  Details have slipped through the cracks, and the employee seems withdrawn or has started arriving late for meetings.  If everything at work seems fine, you may be tempted to tell yourself that it is a personal matter and you should just leave it alone.

In years past, managers—and their employees—assumed that personal matters were left at the door when reporting to work.  What we now realize, however, is that not only are troubles outside of work inevitable, but they also affect the work of the employee and of those around him.  Ultimately, that influence on the workplace compels a manager to take notice and address it when an employee is struggling with a personal matter.

Most managers are understandably reluctant to do that.  They think they'll get too personal or too caught up in a sticky problem, so they'd rather keep their distance by ignoring the issue.  Good managers, however, recognize that helping employees resolve issues is absolutely essential in developing and maintaining a high performance work team.

Here are five guidelines to help managers tread this line.

  1. Look for Trouble.  Managers need to be alert to what is going on with their team so they can quickly recognize when there is a problem.  An employee who suddenly stops behaving or becomes reclusive, belligerent or critical signals a problem that needs to be immediately addressed.  A good employee who is suddenly absent from work or who has significantly decreased her level of performance has a story, and someone (that means you) needs to ask about it.
  2. Find the Root Cause of the Problem.  This isn't nosiness.  It is an effort to determine the main issue affecting your employee's work performance.  Perhaps he or she is experiencing a health crisis, the end of a marriage, or an illness of a parent or child.  Keep in mind that the employee is not required to confide in you and may prefer not to hear about it.  But if the person chooses to talk to you about an issue, you are then in a position to help develop solutions.
  3. Identify Resources and Limitations.  You may be able to provide flexibility with work schedules or project assignments or perhaps draw on resources such as HR, an employee assistance program, or the company credit union.  Ultimately, however, the employee needs to be held accountable for working to resolve the crisis.  Even though your employee may be going through a difficult time, you—as a manager—are still responsible for ensuring the work gets done, and therefore cannot allow an employee to operate in crisis mode indefinitely.  Although you are trying to help your employee and you can offer assistance, you cannot solve the problem yourself. 
  4. Follow Up.  If you and the employee have mapped out a plan that will help the employee get through the crisis (i.e., working virtually while a child is in the hospital or having the employee contact the company credit union for assistance while in a financial bind), check in with the employee regularly to make sure progress is actually being made and to discuss the next steps for recovery.
  5. Be as Supportive as Possible—Without Getting Sucked In.  Know that whatever accommodations you make for your employee will set precedent for this employee and for others.  Make sure that your flexibility, done out of kindness, also has a business basis and that it does not ultimately hurt the organization.

Managers who genuinely care about their employees recognize when someone on the team is suffering.  Those managers then try to identify the problem, assist in finding a solution, and provide support (and limits) to help employees in crisis find their way back on the right career and personal track.


With his distinctive, direct and oft-humorous approach, “recovering attorney” and long-time business and executive coach Paul Glover bares his knuckles to present 76 strategies and tips to thrive in the Knowledge Economy in his new book, WorkQuake, published by Round Table Companies. The blogger for coined the term WorkQuakeTM of the Knowledge Economy to capture his unique insights and tools to implement organizational change in the knowledge economy. Paul’s writing has been featured in The Business Edge, Vistage,, and Food Manufacturing. He is based in Chicago.

More in Operations