Recently a reader posed a sensitive scenario that often proves conflicting for organizational leaders. In essence the reader asked, “How long is too long for an organization to accommodate for an employee’s personal crisis, such as the illness and death of a family member?”
By accommodations, I mean time off, flexible work schedules, and reduction of job responsibilities. In this scenario, the crisis has lingered for two years. Performance appraisals indicate the employee has and continues to perform below expectations. The dilemma is this: How does a supervisor, in a sensitive manner, lead an employee in this situation to a) improve performance; b) accept a lesser role with the company; or c) move away from the company?
Certainly, few leaders want to be thought of as cold and insensitive in a situation like this one. It’s a precarious dilemma. The pain and emotional suffering that is certain to have been experienced by an employee is something that none of us ever want to face. Organizational leaders that work to ease the pressure of situations like this are to be commended. Frankly, in this day and time, I fear most simply wouldn’t make such an effort to accommodate an employee for an extended period of time. They would have either determined that they couldn’t–or wouldn’t–justify the sacrifices on the part of the organization.
But, the fact remains that more is now expected of the employee and the employee knows it. Can the employee rise (return) physically, emotionally and intellectually to the level of performance necessary and required by this position? At this point, no one really knows–not even the individual. But, for the good of the organization and all who are vested in its success, the organization is within its rights to expect more than has been realized over the past two years.
As a leader, have you faced a similar situation? Have weeks passed into months as you’ve avoided addressing the issue? Are your superiors, colleagues as well as your employees questioning your leadership, your fairness, your ability to be objective?
If this reader asked for your guidance, what would you suggest?
Here are some ideas to consider:
1. If the company offers an EAP (Employee Assistance Program), I suggest utilizing that service to identify an outside, professional counselor to assist the employee. There is no reason to know the substance of their discussions. However, it is fair to inform both the counselor and the employee that the end goal of their session(s) is one of the following options:
a) Eliminate all barriers (including emotional ones) that are currently preventing the employee from returning to the expected performance levels required of the position the employee currently occupies. Identifying specific standards of performance is appropriate and would be recommended.
b) Decide to step out of the current position and into another available position within the company that would accommodate the changes this employee may have experienced relative to professional mindset, performance, energy and commitment during the preceding two years.
c) Voluntarily abandon the position within the organization entirely and seek more suitable employment opportunities given the changes in perspective and priorities that the employee may have experienced.
2. I suggest a firm deadline be assigned to this counseling activity from the beginning of the process, as in, “We will expect your decision regarding what the future may hold for you here within the next 3 to 6 weeks” (or whatever period you think reasonably acceptable).
3. It should also be reinforced that regardless whether Option 1 or 2 is selected, future performance evaluations will be conducted to determine whether acceptable levels of performance are being met. If they are not, appropriate actions will be taken consistent with company policy regarding professional job performance.
These are certainly not easy or comfortable conversations to have with anyone, especially an employee who has been through so much. However, honesty and expediency are key here. The employee needs to hear the truth and needs to hear it ASAP. Any less would be unfair to the individual and to the integrity of the organizational process.
Great leadership is not easy and it’s not always clear-cut. But for those leaders who commit themselves to working through tough situations like this, a leadership reputation of fairness, honesty and integrity is the reward.
As Yogi Berra would say: “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
Here’s the scenario. Some high profile individual — could be a politician, athlete, entertainer, business leader — take your pick — says, does and/or posts something publicly that would have been better left unsaid, undone and unposted. The media soon gets wind of the developments. They initially salivate, then regurgitate the lurid details of the transgression in one story form after another. The public’s awareness is raised. Hired guns, critics and commentators weigh in loudly. Public opinion polls are cited. Former friends, colleagues and competitors seem shocked by the news of such inappropriate and unseemly behavior. The perpetrator finally faces his/her critics and apologizes publicly. Crocodile tears are shed. The open flogging continues until some other public wrongdoing is unearthed and the process begins anew.
Sound familiar? Of course it does. As a result we are left asking ourselves why this scenario repeats itself again and again. Aren’t people paying attention? Can’t people learn from the mistakes of others who have preceded them? Why do smart, successful people do such blatantly foolish things? I don’t really know. I suppose there are those who crave attention so badly they will do and say outlandish things, regardless how they will be perceived. Some people seem to believe they are above the rules that everyone else plays by and therefore, they can say or do whatever they like without repercussions. Of course, we can’t discount the rock solid fact that some folks are just plain stupid. As one of my friends likes to say, “If you’re gonna be stupid, you better be tough.”
The most recent foolishness du jour (ala Rep. Anthony Weiner), reminded me that for leaders, the spotlight is always on you, the camera never blinks and regardless your position, there is no such thing as “off the record” comments. If you say or write something inappropriate, it can and will be used against you by others. Therefore, I will remind leaders of four things that should not be committed to writing. Consider the following.
1. Don’t write it down if it is embarrassing.
None of us can escape embarrassing situations or circumstances. It’s a part of life and work. When they occur, they need to be dealt with accordingly. However, it’s hard to find a good reason to commit our own private embarrassments to paper. And it is virtually impossible to create a defensible reason for writing the embarrassments of others. Don’t do it.
2. Don’t write it down if it is unsubstantiated or based on rumors.
Facts rule. If there is something that truly needs to be captured and communicated, make sure it has been vetted appropriately before writing it down. The “rule of two” applies here. For information to be substantiated, it should be confirmed by at least two independent sources, each with facts to support their individual assertions or conclusions. If such substantiated information is unavailable, what you are dealing with are rumors, and leaders should not perpetuate rumors by speaking or writing them.
3. Don’t write it down if it is an inside joke.
A lot of foolish people have attempted to defend something inappropriate that they have done or said by playing the Joker card. They contend, “I was only joking. You have simply misinterpreted what I said or meant.” Maybe so, but if the information is written in such that a regular guy or gal wouldn’t understand the content and the humor immediately, don’t run the risk of writing it down and therefore, confusing readers and embarrassing yourself.
4. Don’t write it down if it is written in anger.
People have told me that writing their anger can be cathartic. Okay, if you absolutely must write your anger out, do so on paper, by hand, far removed from the computer’s “send” button or an envelope and stamp. I suggest you remove the temptation to vent, write and send a message that should have never been committed to paper or digital print in the first place.
Let’s face it, people will continue to behave badly. History will repeat itself. High placed individuals will continue to do and say things that will leave us average Joes scratching our heads and wondering, what were they thinking?
But as leaders, we must be more disciplined and deliberate than that. We must think before we speak and before we write. To do less can cause unnecessary and untold confusion, disappointment and frustration—all leading to the lessening of your leadership opportunities.
Now it’s your turn — what other times should a leader refrain from writing? I would love to hear your thoughts.
Phillip Van Hooser