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Frontline Supervisor: Dealing with Employees’ Personal Problems

Frontline Supervisor: Dealing with Employees’ Personal Problems

On 20 Nov 2014, in Management, coaching, Workplace

Each month, “The Balance Sheet” provides questions and answers from experts on a topic that’s important to you as a manager. Please feel free to share this information with other colleagues who also manage people.

Q. In supervisor training, we are strongly warned not to ask employees personal questions or discuss employees’ personal problems. I find this a difficult task because it makes me appear cold. Can you discuss this a little more?

A. Discussing an employee’s personal problems usually results in a temporary cessation of job performance problems that may be caused by the employee’s personal issues. After such discussions, there is often mutual satisfaction between the supervisor and the employee. The employee feels gratified and re-energized to exercise greater control of his or her personal problem and its symptoms, and the supervisor feels he or she successfully counseled the employee to change his or her behavior. These discussions are seductive, but hazardous, because they protract the performance problems, lead to crisis and can serve to perpetuate underlying chronic disease. Often these discussions are motivated by the supervisor’s natural desire to avoid disciplining an employee or participating in constructive confrontation. Consider consulting with BJC EAP to better understand your supervisory role and the effective integration of EAP services.

Q. One of my employees came to me and I promised her confidentiality in exchange for her telling me about her troubles at home. I should have referred her to the EAP, but now I feel I have information about her life at home that I should not keep confidential. What should I do?

A. Talk to BJC EAP about your difficult situation. They will advise you on what to do based on the type of information that has been shared. Some things learned in discourse with others should not be kept secret. For example, you should not promise to keep secret information you have about an intended suicide or a child being abused. There are other examples as well. You are not a professional counselor, so you’re stuck with the problem of making a judgment call. Privileged information, and information governed by privacy laws or confidentiality laws that prohibit or require disclosure, are linked to who we are and what we do. Your experience demonstrates the importance of remaining in the role of supervisor versus counselor. With its experience, skills and the confidentiality laws that govern it, BJC EAP is better equipped to manage confidential information, just as you are better equipped to correct performance.

Q. I think supervisors are sometimes too worried about getting involved with the personal problems of employees. As a result, they appear impersonal and employees recognize it. This compounds problems because employees think the supervisor does not care about them. Am I right?

A. There is a difference between getting involved in an employee’s personal problems and being supportive. A supervisor does not have to behave in a detached and aloof manner to keep from getting involved with the employee’s issues. The challenge comes when a personal problem appears simple or understandable to the supervisor. It is then tempting to offer advice, despite unknown dimensions to the problem that might exist. The other part of this challenge comes from employees who want the supervisor involved in their problems. These employees want a different type of relationship with their supervisor -- one that meets their personal needs. Supervisors should resist, as it is important for them to understand that meeting personal needs and going beyond their normal role will almost always interfere with managing productivity later.

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