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Elizabeth Fuss Arnott, SPHR  I have been working in Human Resources for 23 years. Since 2011, I have been certified as a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR).  I have a BA in English and a Master of Jurisprudence in Labor and Employment Law from Tulane Law School. I live in the Pacific Northwest with my husband Luke and our cat, Poirot. I write about HR, non-profits, the art of managing people and Neurodiversity in the workplace. I'm available for employment, contract work, consulting, coaching and training virtually and in the Portland, OR area. Please email me at for more information. 

  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Arnott, SPHR

An Employee in Crisis: How to Use Compassion to Support the Employee and Your Team

Bill's husband is sick. He was just diagnosed with cancer. Bill's worry and concern is like a heavy cloud over his interactions with clients, with co-workers, and in his day-to-day work. He has already explained to you that he can not take unpaid family leave because he is the bread winner and needs a paycheck in order to support his family.

Bill has confided in you as his manager, so you know what's going on. But the rest of your team does not. Complaints are already coming in that Bill is not pulling his weight, that he's using his vacation time for unplanned absences. You don't want to share Bill's situation with the team, because he doesn't want anyone to know, but you need to address your team's concerns.

Here's a six step plan to support both the employee in crisis and your team, with compassion:

1. Work with your HR team. Consult with your HR team from the first time you hear about the crisis. Check in with them frequently to ensure compliance with necessary regulations. Keep them updated on time off and any other developments you may need assistance with.

2. Talk to the employee. Ask him what he has communicated to his team members. Ask him if he would like you to communicate anything specifically to the team. Reassure him that the team cares about him and that you all wish for the best for him and his family. Let him know that you will take on the task of delegating projects or duties as needed. Remind him of the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and any other benefits or resources that are available.

3. Talk to your team. Without sharing any private or confidential information, speak to team members one on one to let them know that as a team you need them to provide some extra support for Bill. You don't need to share any private information, but you can let them know that he needs extra support right now and that as a team we need to rally around him right now. If they ask why, you can explain that just as if they had a confidential personal situation, they would not want you to share that information, you cannot share the details of Bill's situation. You can express confidence in the team and their support for each other. Reassure them that you are there to pitch in where needed.

4. Check in with each team member daily. That's right - daily, and not just the employee in crisis. Everyone. Ask these three questions every day: How's everything going? What's on your plate today? What can I help with? Pay attention to: problem trends, frequently overwhelmed team members, time-sensitive tasks or projects. Adjust task delegations as needed and take on any tasks that will help your team. If deadlines need to be adjusted, notify your leaders/customers as proactively as possible.

5. Address performance issues with compassion and in a timely manner. It is common for employees in crisis to have performance issues. Don't avoid performance conversations with the employee. Address them in a timely manner, expressing empathy, and refocusing the employee on their job, while they are at work. Provide tools needed for success. Ensure that he is taking care of himself. Reiterate your support for him. Remind him that he can come to you at any time if he is feeling overwhelmed. Make sure he is aware of any benefits or resources available to your employees. I wrote more about this here.

6. Eliminate gossip by creating a culture of compassion. As the leader of your team, if you hear other team members gossiping about the employee in crisis, speak with those team members individually, immediately. Ask them to focus on their own work. Ask them to set an example for other team members by not participating in any conversations involving gossip or speculation. Reiterate the team's commitment to being supportive of the employee in crisis, just as they would do if the gossiping employee was in crisis. Express confidence in their ability to lead. Express appreciation for them.

You got this!


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