Dear ReWorker: What Should I Do When an Employee Comes to Me With a Personal Problem?
JANUARY 24, 2020
What do you do when an employee comes to you with a personal problem? I’m not a therapist or lawyer. I don’t want to send people away from my office, but am I supposed to do anything with this type of information? People tell me about divorce, abuse, financial issues, kid problems — everything! Help!
Dear Overly Involved,
This is a common problem for human resources managers. We are the people employees go to when they need to take time off for a health problem, so it makes sense that they want to discuss their health with us. We are the people they go to when they need help managing their relationship with your boss, so why shouldn’t they mention their marital problems?
When workers come to you, you need to divide everything into two categories: issues that call for you to act and those that don’t. Here is what goes where.
When You Need to Act
Health problems: If a condition qualifies for FMLA or ADA coverage, you’ll need to act immediately. Provide the employee with the necessary paperwork and instructions on how to speak with their doctors.
If the employee needs an accommodation, begin the process immediately. Yes, you can technically wait for the ADA paperwork to come in, but many accommodations are easy and you should be looking for a way to say yes. Helping employees when they are sick is not only the right thing to do, but it also ultimately benefits the business and reduces the likelihood that employees will leave down the road.
Often, employees don’t know the laws that protect them, so they may not know when they come to you, say, upset about a spouse’s cancer diagnosis, that they may be eligible to take time off to care for their partner. Make sure you let them know.
And remember: Mental health issues can be covered by FMLA and ADA as well. Never discount a mental health problem.
Domestic violence: FMLA can cover injuries resulting from domestic violence, including PTSD. If your employee is a victim of domestic violence, you’ll want to ask about security measures (transferring the employee to another site, changing phone numbers, providing a special parking spot close to the building, or any other number of measures), especially if the employee is in the process of leaving an abusive partner. Domestic violence may seem like personal drama that you’d prefer to keep out of the office, but ensuring the safety of all your employees should be a top priority.
Some states have laws specifically to protect the jobs of domestic violence victims. Make sure you know the law in your state.
When You Should Not Act
Finances, legal issues and therapy: Never give financial or legal advice. You’re neither a lawyer nor a licensed financial planner. You do represent the business, and if someone acts on your advice, you could put the company at risk.
You are also not a therapist and should not offer counseling. "Refer, refer, refer" should be your mantra. If you have an employee assistance program (EAP), direct employees to call for help from a specialist. You can coach an employee on how to interact with a supervisor, but you should advise the employee to seek out a marriage counselor to deal with communication problems at home.
You can arrange a company-sponsored pay advance, but you should never loan an employee money out of your own pocket. If the company wants to give an advance to help with a financial issue, then it needs to be according to policy with the proper documentation and plan for repayment.
You can be a listening ear, but make sure you set proper boundaries and avoid the urge to jump in with friendly advice based on your own personal experiences.
You want to have an open-door policy, but sometimes that open door means you learn things you didn’t want to know. Try your best to be professional, act when you’re required to and send people to the proper experts for everything else.
Suzanne Lucas, Evil HR Lady
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