When an Employee Faces Personal Crisis

It was a typical Monday morning and I was busying myself with coffee, emails, and chit-chat when I heard a quick rap on my door.

“You got a minute?”

It was Brad.  The Brad who hardly says a word in passing, much less stops by my office to talk.  I welcomed him in and he shut the door behind him.

“So, I need to know how all this FMLA stuff works.  My wife has cancer.”

The typical Monday morning quickly diminished.  I had an employee in crisis.

Whether it’s illness or death, divorce or bankruptcy, most people will face at least one personal crisis at some point in their careers.  And it’s during that crisis that managers can provide the support needed to help employees sustain their jobs while managing their personal lives.  Here are three ways to help:


While technology and flexible work schedules have created desirable work/life balance, they have also muddied the lines of professional and personal relationships.  Social media and constant communication have drastically changed how people communicate with one another, including those in superior/subordinate relationships. Social media has also changed the way people communicate about and work through a personal crisis, creating an environment where employers now know more about the personal lives of their staff than ever before.

Although you may already be armed with information, when an employee comes to you for help, take the time to listen—really listen. This is not the time to share your personal experiences or provide advice. Use precaution to keep the conversation within professional boundaries. While you don’t want to turn the meeting into a therapy session, you will need to gather certain information. What sort of time off will the employee need?  Is a modified work schedule possible? Will the need be short-term or long-term? Who will serve as the backup while he/she is out of the office?  How are unplanned absences to be communicated? And finally, how much (if anything) about the situation would the employee like communicated to the rest of the team?

Make a Plan

Next, you will need to lead the employee through their options. If an employee is particularly upset, schedule a second meeting to go over benefits and a plan for accommodating him during his time of need.  Some things you will want to include in your conversation are:

  1. Leave Time – Inform the employee of how much leave time they have available to use. Can they use sick time instead of vacation? What happens if he/she exhausts their leave time?  Does your company have a leave sharing policy?  Armed with this information, employees can make better decisions for managing their leave time within the boundaries of company policy and performance expectations.
  1. FMLA and Short-Term Disability – Some employees may be eligible for extended, unpaid-leave under FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act). If appropriate, provide the employee with the proper documentation to be completed by his/her physician, or a family member’s physician.  Explain how the FMLA leave will be calculated and how it will coincide with any paid leave the employee may have.  If short-term disability is applicable, assist the employee in procuring the necessary paperwork to apply.
  1. Support – Some employers offer an Employee Assistance Program, or EAP. EAPs provide a wide array of counseling services, including grief counseling, substance abuse, marriage counseling, financial counseling, legal aid, and cancer support, at no cost to the employee.  Use the planning meeting to share information about your company’s EAP.  If an EAP is not available, come armed with the names and contact information of providers in your area.
  1. Communication Plan – Put into writing a communication plan for ongoing management of the employee’s leave time and modified work schedule. Make clear the process for communicating unplanned absences.  Develop a plan for managing on-going projects, training backup personnel, as well as a plan for providing pertinent information to customers and vendors who may be affected.


A few weeks later, I saw Brad in the break room and pulled-up a chair across from him.

“How are things going?”

It was a simple, but sincere question.  He openly shared with me the latest information, their plans for treatment, and a very positive prognosis.  And he thanked me for asking about his wife.  Continuous and sincere follow-up will go a long way in showing your employee that you care about them.

Creating an environment of compassion while maintaining professional boundaries isn’t always easy, but by following these three steps, you’ll be better equipped to do just that.


Originally published on HR Notes.