I once worked with a VP who was at the tail end of a situation that had gotten out of hand. Six months prior, one of his senior directors—who I’ll call Shari, had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Although she continued to work throughout her treatment, her performance suffered and team members had to take on extra work. My VP wanted to be as accommodating as possible and so he didn’t say anything.
Just as Shari was on the mend, her husband was in a car accident and as a result needed extensive back surgery. Shari still claimed she didn’t need time off and could handle her responsibilities while tending to her husband. Not wanting to add insult to injury, my VP still said nothing as more deadlines were pushed. At this point his team was really showing signs of frustration and resentment. My VP was at the end of his rope.
Finding a Balance
Life is hard. Parents, spouses, and children get sick. Backs go out. The stomach flu makes the rounds of the office and then goes home to the family. Cars break down, basements flood, and everyone occasionally gets out on the wrong side of the bed. And isn’t it great to have a boss who gives you the benefit of the doubt when you have to run out of the office to deal with an emergency? Don’t we wish we all had a boss like that?
But when deadlines and quality suffer, and the team is becoming aggravated that someone’s poor performance isn’t being addressed, things have gone too far.
As a manager, you really do have to be kind and understanding when people go through rough times. But you also need to balance sympathy for the needs of an employee with common sense about the needs of the team and the business.
Here are four ideas that may help:
- Be sure each person on the team has a complete understanding of their individual responsibilities, tasks, goals, and deadlines. The more clear these are, the more evident it is when one person is picking up the slack for another whose performance has dipped.
- If something happens three times, it’s safe to assume it is a pattern. Once you allow a pattern to develop, it’s hard to backtrack—so nip it directly in the bud. Say: “I notice your car trouble is becoming a pattern. Let’s talk and see if we can come up with a solution.”
- The company has rules for sick days or paid time off for a reason. Use these rules and involve HR before you get in over your head. If a rule doesn’t exist that covers your situation, create one. Come to an agreement with your employee that you both can stick to. For example, let’s say someone comes in late three times and then admits it’s because her family got a new puppy and she hasn’t figured out how to work it into the family routine. You could agree to have her come in an hour late a couple of days a week and make up that extra hour from home on those evenings. Everybody wins.
- Watch for resentment on the part of other team members if one employee is perceived as getting special treatment because of a family emergency. If this scenario crops up, put it on the table to discuss with the team. Brainstorm as a group how to best support the team member in need.
As leaders, we all want to be seen as compassionate and fair. But if a manager is too flexible, even a dedicated employee may perceive it as a weakness that can be exploited. Discuss the situation with the employee involved and include the whole team if necessary. Be clear with everyone about performance standards, what leeway is allowed in a pinch, and what the options are if a person’s situation warrants extra help, planning, or intervention. Don’t stop being nice. Just be nice—and smart.
About the author
Madeleine Homan-Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Her posts appear every Saturday as a part of a series for well-intentioned managers.
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