Crucial Accountability QA

Dealing with Personal Issues at Work

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Confrontations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

One of my employees is going through a very difficult divorce. I advised her to take time off to settle her affairs, but she said she enjoys her time at work because it takes her away from her home and gives her a break from family issues.

However, I have noticed that she receives an excessive amount of personal calls and spends a lot of time responding to her personal e-mail during work hours. I do not want to be insensitive to her situation. How can I show my sympathy as I talk to my employee about her excessive use of personal communication at work?

Sympathetic Manager

A  Dear Sympathetic Manager,

Your employee is lucky to have a boss who is concerned about her well-being and who is doing his or her best to balance individual needs with corporate demands. You’re correct in concluding that tough problems at home can indeed carry over to the workplace and they need to be carefully and respectfully managed.

Unfortunately, not everybody wants this to be true. For example, years ago I watched video clips from a training video library a friend loaned to me. In one of the performance management clips, an employee who showed up late to work pointed to a problem at home as part of the reason he hadn’t been on time. In response, the boss stated (and this was supposed to be a positive example) “At our company, we leave our personal problems at the door.”

I understand why a boss might want this to be true—you know, separate home and work to avoid any nasty conflicts—but I couldn’t help but chuckle as the video clip unfolded. Really? You think people can divorce themselves from their problems by simply willing themselves to do so? All they have to do is “leave their problems at the door”?

When this same video clip was shown during a training session I attended a few weeks later, the audience actually laughed at the line. People watching the video thought it was bizarre to even suggest that you could pause at the entrance to work, take a deep breath, and then completely separate yourself from whatever debacles, calamities, and misfortunes are taking place back at home (and they are taking place).

Make no mistake; when you hire someone, you hire the whole employee—including the life they live outside company walls.

And now for the other part of the problem you’ve identified. Those very same people who walk in the doors—complete with personal problems of all kinds and shapes—make promises to the company and that’s where the second half of the problem comes into play. Employees need to be anxiously engaged in serving the company’s needs—at reasonable speed and for a reasonable number of hours.

Here’s where it gets tricky. What, for example, is the appropriate amount of time to spend answering personal phone calls and e-mail? Zero? You’re suggesting that the employee in question is spending an “excessive” amount of time and I don’t doubt that. I also believe that you aren’t going to lay down a law that includes “never” in the guideline.

In fact, my bet is that you yourself take calls from home—I know I do. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see people in our company stay on task and put off interruptions in meetings such as phone calls from vendors and the like—but when it’s from home, they often take the call.

All of this, of course, leads us to the question of how many interruptions are too many? The answer lies in the nature of the job itself. Jobs on production lines, for example, afford little or no time for anything other than hooking on widgets as the parts flow by. Obviously, that doesn’t fit your circumstances. Free-effort jobs like yours and your employee’s do allow for the occasional side issue.

So, the question with your employee is, what are the consequences associated with her taking too many personal calls and messages? It bothers you and you think it’s excessive. Why is that? If your employee is simply spending too much time on personal business, then you might want to ask her to work an additional 15 minutes each day, as a way of making up for the loss. She can talk, she just needs to add back the time.

If the interruptions are disturbing meetings with coworkers, this is another problem with a different solution. If coworkers see her off task and complain about it, that’s still a different issue.

So, start by setting up a meeting with your employee. Think of the consequences that currently have you concerned and enter the conversation with these in mind. Start with Mutual Purpose. Explain that you want to be sensitive to her changing needs while also balancing the needs of the company.

In the spirit of being supportive, share what you’re currently doing to be helpful. For example, you advised her to take time off, you’ve agreed to build in flexible time to allow her to talk with lawyers, and so forth. Ask what else you can do to be of help during this stressful time.

Next, explain the challenges currently resulting from your employee’s frequent use of personal calls and e-mail. Don’t make this heavy-handed or punitive, simply state the facts. Once again, make it clear that your goal is to balance her needs with the job requirements. Openly discuss both the challenges and possible solutions.

Here is where you’ll need to focus on the specific consequences you want to mitigate. Are you dealing with number of minutes, unfinished tasks, interruptions, unhappy coworkers, etc.? Identify the issues that are relevant. Ask the employee for steps she can take to either make up for or resolve the negative consequences you’ve outlined. Jointly come up with a solution that meets everyone’s needs. Set clear standards for future behavior and thank her for her willingness to sit down and work through the challenge.

And bless you for wanting to do what’s right for everyone concerned.