How to Deal With Employees Going Through a Crisis

Felicia Sullivan

In an ideal world, your employees are never sick, sad, or stressed. They report to work every morning, and are forever happy and smiling. However, we live in reality, where even your star talent will experience occasional periods of distress or crisis.

Personal issues are sticky because you want to keep things professional and your small business running smoothly. If you’ve known the employee for a while, it can be challenging to know where to draw the line between offering support and ensuring their work gets done and that coworkers and customers aren’t affected by the situation.

We all try to keep our work and home lives separate, but sometimes those worlds collide, and you don’t want to be the heartless manager who trades empathy for efficiency. Yet, there’s a difference between being a caring and supportive boss and getting embroiled in your employee’s personal struggles—despite your best intentions to remain neutral.

You can’t afford to ignore the problem because the state of your employee’s personal life affects their mood, performance, and interactions with your staff and customers. According to a Stanford University study, work/family conflict has just as much of a negative impact on employee health as working long hours, which means you and your small business could end up bearing the burden of increased health-related costs and loss of productivity.

Toeing the personal/professional line is one of the greatest tests of your leadership abilities, so what do you do when your employees bring their personal problems into the workplace? Before you jump into the fray, here’s your five-step crisis management plan.

Step 1: Be Present and Compassionate Without Being a Therapist

Be a proactive leader. If you witness changes in an employee’s mood or behavior, or if your staff comes to you with concerns, act on them. Invite your employee to meet with you privately or even take them out for coffee, so they can feel more comfortable in explaining the situation.

Listen without being a therapist or personal confidante. You can offer support without shouldering their crisis. Blurring the lines between boss and friend may score you short-term loyalty points, but it only causes long-term issues. The more emotion you invest in the situation, the harder it becomes to have frank conversations with your employee. Every employee should be treated equally, and tipping the scales can create more harm when it comes to overall morale.

Remember, you’re the boss, and respecting your employee’s privacy is of the utmost importance. While it’s not your place to suss out the details of their messy divorce, personal tragedy, or familial illness, you need to know enough to make an informed decision about how to manage the crisis and its potential impact on your business.

Step 2: Assess the Options and Establish a Game Plan

Depending on the severity of the issue, your employee might need a few days to regroup. Or they may require a longer-term plan. Sit down with the employee and determine how much time they’ll need to manage their personal crisis. Can you offer them paid leave, reduced hours, days off, or a more flexible schedule? Does your health insurance plan offer counseling or health-related services that could be of use to your employee? Alert them of their options, even if you think they know them.

Once you have a sense of how much time they’ll need to take off, you can work with them to assess their workload. Map out all of their tasks—even the smallest ones—and ask them, realistically, how much they can manage. It is, however, your call to evaluate what they can really manage, as star performers or employees concerned about job security might over-promise and under-deliver, and then you’re stuck without a plan. So, plan for the worst-case scenario and adjust accordingly.

Once you have a sense of their tasks, reallocate the employee’s assignments and workload across the team temporarily. You don’t want to have another star shouldering all the stress of the employee in crisis in addition to their workload. Establish an interim plan to ensure coverage, so your business doesn’t suffer.

Step 3: Communicate With Your Team

Be transparent and honest with your team about your employee’s dilemma, but use discretion. Other team members don’t need to know all the details, but presenting the facts in a timely and professional manner helps shuts down the rumor mill and demonstrates that you have the situation under control.

It’s important that you manage the flow of information and empower your employees to communicate openly with you throughout the process. Having an open door policy during the event will help in keeping your workplace environment positive and productive.

Present the temporary workaround plan to key members of the team and invite their input—because your team members are closer to the day-to-day and they’ll have a better sense of who can manage what.

Keep in mind that your other employees are stepping up, and you want to acknowledge their dedication and hard work. From hosting a pizza party to giving spot bonuses, creating small rewards will signal that you value your staff’s commitment to your business.

Step 4: Establish Employee Check-Ins

You want to be present without being intrusive. Establish with your employee, as part of the temporary coverage plan, specific check-ins down to the day and time. This will ensure that your employee is prepared to give you pertinent updates on what’s going on, and you can determine how any shifts from the game plan will impact your business. You may find that you have to adjust your strategy and make decisions about your team, depending upon the well-being of your employee in crisis.

Step 5: Have a Back-Up Plan…Just in Case

Naturally, you have the best intentions for your employees and you want to make sure that there’s as little disruption as possible. However, you have to be realistic about the situation, and creating a Plan B will create further business stability. That could be anything from reallocating resources internally to securing a long-term replacement or hiring additional team members.

One of the most important investments you can make in your small business is to have your team members document what they do, how they do it, and the flow of their day-to-day activities. Logging this on an internal website or keeping copies printed in a binder will reduce the risk of all the knowledge leaving should your employee take a leave. This also cuts down training and onboarding time for temporary or full-time replacements.

If and when the employee returns, create a transition plan so that their return is a smooth one. Also, make a point to check in with them every so often. Simply showing your concern means everything to an employee who has just emerged from a crisis situation. In short, they’ll know you have their back.

While we try to create a divide between the personal and the professional, in reality, the two worlds definitely overlap. Creating an atmosphere of open communication and camaraderie can help make the process of planning for how your small business will handle an employee crisis a seamless one.

Have you had any experiences with a crisis management plan? Let us know in the comments.

19 Responses to "How to Deal With Employees Going Through a Crisis"

    • Jason Maximovich | December 17, 2018 at 10:16 am

      Employee issues have always been an issue for me as long as I have been in the workforce, whether it was self-employed for the last 11 years or when I worked at companies. I cannot emphasize the importance to letting the employee know that they can take some time off to get their situation in order. I also use that time to emphasize the importance proper documentation, project statuses and I work with them to develop a short term game plan so everything at work does not fall apart during this. I have found that when I present a solution that helps them with their personal issue and promotes some harmony at work, it allows the employee to focus on resolving the personal issue at an accelerated pace. I have had this discussion with other business owners and while it is easy to take the stance of keep it at home, work is work, the reality is that without compassion towards the employee’s plight, you might find the small investment of time that you might feel is unprofessional or unwarranted can cost you, the employer much more in the long run.

      • Hannah Sullivan | December 17, 2018 at 10:41 am

        Jason- thanks for your feedback and great insights! They will be helpful for many.

    • InfoUniverse | December 19, 2018 at 1:52 am

      Thanks be to God for you two! xo

    • Mary Ford | December 20, 2018 at 1:08 pm

      Well-said and excellent feedback. Knowing that your employer cares and is wiling to work WITH you is sometimes all an employee needs

      • Hannah Sullivan | December 21, 2018 at 9:57 am

        Thank you, Mary!

    • Coffee Shop Owner | July 17, 2019 at 3:07 am

      All of the ideas a great in concept but easier said than done when there are several last-minute call-outs and minimal staff to cover. If you make special accomodations for one, you have to do it for others—where and how do you draw the line? Hard to run a successful business this way. People are your most valuable resource for sure—but there is a real resilience issue in our current workforce. It worries me for our future.

      • Hannah Stacy | July 17, 2019 at 11:35 am

        Thanks for the feedback!

    • Rosa Santiago Zimmerman | July 17, 2019 at 6:24 am

      When we set our intentions onto the Universe, the Universe responds with timely articles such as this one. I am actually preparing for a meeting today having to deal with just this topic. The employee is not only a valuable employee, but she is also my daughter. The struggle of personal/professional is very real, especially in small-family base businesses such as mine. I thought I was being a pretty good leader applying many of the steps and concepts above, but the struggles continue, and unfortunately, decisions have to be made for the best interest of the relationships, the morale of the non-family employees and the overall interest of the business.

      Separating personal concern and “feelings” from leadership and a boss like approach is a must but extremely hard to maneuver on a daily basis. So many different personality styles and approach to the meaning of professionalism. As an owner and leader the struggle is walking that fine line of this is business and this is personal without coming across as cold, uncaring or even somewhat bipolar to those whom I share my personal and professional life with.

      This is a great topic that certainly should be explored further. Thanks for the insight and wish me luck!

    • Ariel | July 17, 2019 at 11:18 am

      So relate to this! Compassion from an employer is worth sooo much. Also, for it not to be used against you later counts a million, especially when you have still done your work and on time.

      • Hannah Stacy | July 17, 2019 at 11:37 am

        Thanks for the comment Ariel!

    • Diana S. | July 17, 2019 at 12:54 pm

      We’re very small, but we have had employees miss a week to a month for personal crises. When an employee misses a week, the primary owner who is mostly retired might come in and lend a hand, while the rest of us divvy out the workload. When we’ve had an employee miss a month where the primary owner was not able to help out, we did hire a temporary employee to cover the phones and do data entry and anything else we could teach very quickly. That freed us up to cover the missing employee’s work while they were out. We gave small bonuses to employees that took on the extra work and gave a glowing recommendation letter to the temp when she was trying to find a permanent position. Having the temp made all the difference.

      • Hannah Stacy | July 18, 2019 at 12:29 pm

        Thanks for sharing this Diana!

    • Dan | July 17, 2019 at 7:02 pm

      Coffee Shop Owner mentioned last minute call outs – sick calls. It is a huge issue, but there’s not a lot you can do about it. At work, we talk a lot about teamwork. If you’re sick, you had better stay home, ’cause I’m going to be narked if you get me sick. On the other hand, if you’re not sick, be part of the team. Show up so others don’t have to do your work for you. Only if you show a pattern of not showing up does it become an issue.

      I think most people who call in sick probably are. In a Dilbert cartoon, pointy-haired boss was frustrated that 20% of sick calls are on a Monday and 20% on Friday. Mathematically, this is how it should be.

      • Hannah Stacy | July 19, 2019 at 10:44 am

        Thanks for the comment Dan!

    • lise i wallace | July 18, 2019 at 11:09 am

      Leadership is all about embracing the belief that everyone in the work place has something valuable to contribute. How that is conveyed is demonstrating three simple things in all interactions. (1) I see you (2) I hear what you are saying (3) I value you. Leadership that believes and demonstrates these principals grow leaders within the team.Belonging to a company that believes in a learning environment that fosters leadership development, shares knowledge, coaches and feels free to up coach is unstoppable. The result will be a passion to understand the company objectives in terms of how each individual might impact the bottom line.The skill set for decision making will become vital to all individuals as they present opportunities for improvement. Confidence, ownership and the sense that we all belong grows. The emotional impact of being valued and the understanding that our contributions are important better equips each of us to deal with personal hardships.

      • Hannah Stacy | July 19, 2019 at 10:45 am

        Thanks for the response!

    • JP | August 1, 2019 at 11:59 pm

      I was the best at understanding and rearranging schedules when my employee or her children were sick, It got to the point that she hardly worked and to my shock she met with clients after work and kept the money to herself! I own a medspa and she was a supposed friend for over 10 years, Inventory was missing and and she was caught red handed, Heart beaker but eye opener. I did many changes including cameras in the office, Sad but I had to do.

      • Hannah Stacy | August 2, 2019 at 10:22 am

        Thanks for sharing this story!

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