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Cliff Holste is Supply Chain Digest's Material Handling Editor. With more than 30 years experience in designing and implementing material handling and order picking systems in distribution, Holste has worked with dozens of large and smaller companies to improve distribution performance.

Logistics News

By Cliff Holste

August 20, 2014

Managing Employee Personal Crises

Crossing the Line Between Being Boss and a Caring Human Being

Holste Says:

Managers and line supervisors must be attuned to all of these "outside" influences as they can directly impact on employee performance.
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For most of us, life is full of everyday challenges. Some are able to deal with the vulgarities of life without much trouble – “like water off a ducks back”. But for others it’s not so easy. The recent suicide of world famous actor and comedian Robin Williams, is a shocking reminder of just how troubling and difficult life’s challenges can be for some.

Managers and line supervisors must be attuned to all of these “outside” influences as they can directly impact on employee performance. But a manager is not a therapist. So the question is – how much is too much when it comes to caring about your employees? In the following article, Sonya Collins addresses this question.

Sonya Collins:


Sonya Collins is an independent journalist whose stories about health care, medicine, and biomedical research have appeared in publications including, Scientific American, Yale Medicine, Georgia Health News, and publications served by the Georgia Public Health News Bureau. She is the editor of Primary Care Progress Notes, the guest-written blog of primary care advocacy group Primary Care Progress, and editor of the Georgia Public Health News Bureau.

Over the Line

By Sonya Collins

Working with a team every day, you learn a lot about your colleagues – their children’s achievements, their vacation plans, their personal hardships. But when you’re in charge of that team, when and how to involve yourself, if at all, in those details can be a balancing act.

Of course you care about others – you’re human. So when an employee goes through a personal crisis, how involved should you get? “You need to know how workers are doing to the extent that it impacts the job,” says Brenda Ellington-Booth, MBA, PhD, a professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Anything beyond that can put you in a difficult position with your staff and even lead to legal trouble.

First, acting as a friend or confidante to one employee can look like favoritism to the others and can create an unhealthy (workplace) culture. “It sends a signal to everyone else that you have to spill your guts if you want the attention of your boss” Ellington-Booth says.

What’s more, while your employee’s personal difficulties may not affect the job now, if performance slips later, you could be in a tough spot. “On the other hand, you’re this caring, wonderful friend, and then all of a sudden you’re in a position where you might not be able to give them a plum project, or a raise. They may say ‘I thought you were my friend. I thought you had my back’. To blur those lines ultimately hurts the employee,” Ellington-Booth says.

There’s more: Be aware that an employee who is fired or misses out on a raise after sharing personal information with a boss may have grounds for a lawsuit.

As long as workers do their job, you shouldn’t probe into their personal crises. If an employee wants to share what’s going on, let him/her know you care, then steer the conversation to your and the company’s role. You can also ask how you can help manage his/her workload during this difficult time.

Final Thoughts

In today’s litigious society, the best advice for managers dealing with an employee going through a personal crises is to ask (but not suggest) if the employee has taken advantage of resources your company and/or community may offer, such as referrals for counseling. Anything more can crossover the line into more complex and potentially dangerous territory.


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