Facing an Emotional Conversation? Ask Madeleine

Unhappy with employeeDear Madeleine,

I am a fairly experienced manager, but I have reached my limit with one of my people—let’s call her Sam. She is extremely competent and up until about a year ago she was very reliable. Since then, it seems as if it has been one crisis after another.

First, one of her kids was sick and it took a long time to get a diagnosis. Sam was out of work constantly, either consulting doctors or at home with her child. It turned out to be Lyme disease—which is no joke—and I feel bad, but her work really took a hit.

Then her mom got kicked out of her rental and had to move in with Sam. Her mom had multiple health problems requiring more trips to the doctor. About a month ago, things got more complicated when her mom fell and broke her hip. This required moving her into assisted living, which had to be researched and arranged by Sam. I am pretty sure she is helping to pay for it, too.

The net result is that Sam is constantly calling in sick, coming in late, and needing to leave early. There is an ex-husband in the picture who doesn’t help out at all. When Sam is here, she is distracted. She seems to be her family’s sole source of support and it would make me feel like a terrible person if I let her go.

Our work requires people to be at their desks and available to customers and Sam is not holding up her end. Her co-workers are getting frustrated and are looking to me to do something. The last time I tried to discuss this with her, she burst into tears and we had to end the conversation.

It’s Always Something

Dear It’s Always Something

This is a really tough situation. It worries me that you don’t seem to have support for Sam through the HR department in your organization. You should definitely be discussing this with your boss. Your company must have some employee assistance policies—some programs in place that she could lean on for support.

As a working mom, I can attest to how fiendishly difficult it is to work full time while raising kids, so that may color my objectivity on this issue. Today many people in the workforce are juggling madly, racing from home to daycare to school to work and back home again to start their second shift. In my experience, working mothers get more done in less time than other people because they have to. Throw in the aging parent angle and things get exponentially more difficult.

In this case, it sounds like Sam is a good employee when things are stable. I recommend that you brainstorm how to arrange Sam’s schedule to give her the flexibility she needs to get her job done. Perhaps she could work a few days from home. Or maybe you could change up her hours so she covers the phone early mornings.

You are also going to need to persevere through some emotion and have a real conversation with her.

People cry—okay, more women than men, according to research—and they cry at work; usually in the bathroom. It’s not the end of the world and it does not signify an end to the conversation. All it means is that the person is experiencing deep emotions. It happens. It is part of being human. Deep emotions can get in the way of thinking straight, so it is actually useful to let Sam experience them and get them out of the way, so that the two of you can get on with things. Get a box of tissues, let Sam cry, and wait until she gets through it and composes herself.

Lay out the problem. Tell her you are on her side and you appreciate that she is an excellent employee who has had some real challenges. Communicate that you really want to find a way for her to do what she needs to do for her family while also doing what needs to be done to help you and the team meet your goals. Engage her in solving the problem; you never know what kind of a solution will present itself. She might cry some more. No big deal; just hand over the tissues.

Regarding the issue of your team getting annoyed with Sam, there might be an opportunity here to pull the team together around supporting her. Who knows who will be next in line to win the lousy luck lottery? Wouldn’t it be nice for everyone to know that the whole team will rally around them if they have a really bad month? Or year?

And yes, it is possible that you may not be able to work this out. But I would say you owe it to your own development as a manager, and to your employee, to explore every avenue. If things do work out, you will have retained a loyal employee. And if they don’t, you’ll know you gave it your very best shot.

Good luck to both you and Sam.

Love, Madeleine

About the author


Madeleine Homan-Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

4 thoughts on “Facing an Emotional Conversation? Ask Madeleine

  1. Loved your advice. So many times organizations can kick someone to the curb without trying to walk thru a season with them, thus gaining a loyal employee and demonstrating compassion as a cultural value. This could be a growth opportunity for all involved. Thanks for the great advice!!

  2. Walking through the valley with someone on your team is a real sign of maturity in the leader. Leadership is often messy because it requires relationship. Leadership without the relationship is management. And you are right. In the end, the best thing for the team member and the company may be to part ways. But even if it comes to that, it will be a win-win for both.

  3. Madeline, your response and guidance were incredibly helpful. As a coach and having manage many people over the years – I have seen this situation come up. I found myself reading every word of this blog post – letting each take a moment to settle and find its place in my toolbox for future use.
    Thank you!
    Your Channnel Partner – Eileen

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