Talking to Distressed Employees
As department chairs, supervisors, directors and team leaders, your first consideration will be the employee’s behavior. Sometimes these behavior problems affect the employee’s well being or the safety of others. The employee might be preoccupied, unhappy or acting in an unusual manner. In rare instances, behavior is unusual enough that the lives of other people could be affected. At times the behavior affects job performance and the supervisor must implement a disciplinary process. (Human Resources can assist you to implement a disciplinary process.) For example, employees frequently might be late or call in sick to work, procrastinate or leave tasks incomplete, act inappropriately with other employees or with students, experience interpersonal problems, or be inebriated on the job.
You can have a profound effect on an employee by openly acknowledging that you are aware of her/his change of behavior and that you are sincerely concerned about her/his welfare. At times the employee will refuse the resources you provide to help with the problem. Although an employee may refuse assistance, you may still require, as part of the structured discipline process, that work performance be improved. Keep in mind that employees are in no way obligated to talk with you about personal problems. They are required however, to meet job performance expectation.
If you have reason to believe that an employee is experiencing distress related to a potential, serious threat to self or to another person, or related to sexual harassment, you are obliged to intervene.
EAP staff can assist you in weighing the severity of the situation and whether or not the situation warrants measures refused by the employee.
Keep in Mind
When you talk with an employee consider the following:
- Privacy is Important.
Privacy is important in most cases. In a few cases, having another person present may be helpful to you or the employee, but this will be an exception. Set apart a time when you are not rushed or preoccupied. Give the employee your undivided attention. It is possible that just a few minutes of effective listening on your part may be enough to help the employee feel comfortable about what to do next.
- Honesty is Important.
It is usually best to be frank with an employee about the limits of your ability to assist (e.g., limits of time, energy, training, objectivity). It is often reassuring to an employee to hear that you respect her/his willingness to talk to you and that you want to support her/him in getting the assistance he/she needs.
- Strange and Inappropriate Behavior should not be ignored.
The employee can be informed that such behavior is distracting and inappropriate.