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Responding to Employees in Crisis

Richard G. Ensman, Jr. January 2006 issue of Skin Inc. magazine

Tomorrow morning, you could walk into your business and find that one of your team members is facing a traumatic event. It could be a serious illness, a tragic accident or even the death of an immediate family member. It could involve divorce or a significant family problem. The event might be public, or it may be private.
      Whatever the circumstances, you know all too well that the incident will affect your employee deeply, along with their job performance. You can’t erase trauma from the lives of your team members, but, when confronted with it, you can address it positively and sensitively using the following steps.

      Get the facts. Although you cannot control the problem, you can learn what did—and did not—happen. Make it a point to sit privately with the employee. Simply asking for a description of the unfortunate event or incident provides the opportunity for the person to share whatever is on their mind. More importantly, it sets the stage for identifying what should be done next.

      Put the employee in control. Facing a crisis or tragedy leaves most people feeling helpless and powerless. Although the emotions of the event may linger long after it is over, you can help restore a small measure of control to the team member’s life by informing them of your support. If appropriate, inquire about how you can help. Empathy, not sympathy, makes the difference. The key to this is engaging in genuinely nondirective conversation—comments that reinforce the feelings and thoughts of your distressed employee. Your instinct may be to offer a sympathetic response, such as “I want you to know that I feel so badly for you.” A nondirective response is more effective, such as “I hear how upset you feel about the aftermath … .”

      Keep it specific. If you are like most people, talking during someone’s tragedy is difficult and can even be painful. It is easy to resort to superficial comments and platitudes in the “things-will-be-all-right” vein. But remember, your team member is confronting specifics, such as times, dates, circumstances and needs, and your willingness to talk about the details may be affirming.

      Record what’s necessary. Although you usually don’t think about record keeping when you’re speaking with a team member who is facing a crisis, notes can be important. For starters, make sure that any comments or agreements you make about work-related issues are documented properly. These can include decisions about time off, salary or wage payments during an absence, or reallocation of duties to other staff members. Equally important, it can be easy to forget critical details about the problem during the emotion of the moment, so taking notes immediately after the conference is essential.

      Release necessary information. Other employees want to know what is going on with their peers. Although you never should reveal highly personal information, news about an illness, a death, or a fire or natural disaster affecting a fellow employee often will bring support from co-workers. Announce the information as soon as possible, conveyed in brief memo form or during a staff meeting, so that everyone hears the same news—but only after you inform your distressed employee of your intentions.

      Keep your emotional distance. Should you demonstrate your commitment to your employee and show support? Of course. But avoid becoming tangled in family or personal issues by offering unsolicited advice or making assurances that you can’t keep. A supportive but objective demeanor on your part is a logical extension of your own role as a leader or manager and can mean the world to a team member in trouble.

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