Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Dealing with Personal Issues at Work

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Confrontations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

One of my employees is going through a very difficult divorce. I advised her to take time off to settle her affairs, but she said she enjoys her time at work because it takes her away from her home and gives her a break from family issues.

However, I have noticed that she receives an excessive amount of personal calls and spends a lot of time responding to her personal e-mail during work hours. I do not want to be insensitive to her situation. How can I show my sympathy as I talk to my employee about her excessive use of personal communication at work?

Sympathetic Manager

A  Dear Sympathetic Manager,

Your employee is lucky to have a boss who is concerned about her well-being and who is doing his or her best to balance individual needs with corporate demands. You’re correct in concluding that tough problems at home can indeed carry over to the workplace and they need to be carefully and respectfully managed.

Unfortunately, not everybody wants this to be true. For example, years ago I watched video clips from a training video library a friend loaned to me. In one of the performance management clips, an employee who showed up late to work pointed to a problem at home as part of the reason he hadn’t been on time. In response, the boss stated (and this was supposed to be a positive example) “At our company, we leave our personal problems at the door.”

I understand why a boss might want this to be true—you know, separate home and work to avoid any nasty conflicts—but I couldn’t help but chuckle as the video clip unfolded. Really? You think people can divorce themselves from their problems by simply willing themselves to do so? All they have to do is “leave their problems at the door”?

When this same video clip was shown during a training session I attended a few weeks later, the audience actually laughed at the line. People watching the video thought it was bizarre to even suggest that you could pause at the entrance to work, take a deep breath, and then completely separate yourself from whatever debacles, calamities, and misfortunes are taking place back at home (and they are taking place).

Make no mistake; when you hire someone, you hire the whole employee—including the life they live outside company walls.

And now for the other part of the problem you’ve identified. Those very same people who walk in the doors—complete with personal problems of all kinds and shapes—make promises to the company and that’s where the second half of the problem comes into play. Employees need to be anxiously engaged in serving the company’s needs—at reasonable speed and for a reasonable number of hours.

Here’s where it gets tricky. What, for example, is the appropriate amount of time to spend answering personal phone calls and e-mail? Zero? You’re suggesting that the employee in question is spending an “excessive” amount of time and I don’t doubt that. I also believe that you aren’t going to lay down a law that includes “never” in the guideline.

In fact, my bet is that you yourself take calls from home—I know I do. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see people in our company stay on task and put off interruptions in meetings such as phone calls from vendors and the like—but when it’s from home, they often take the call.

All of this, of course, leads us to the question of how many interruptions are too many? The answer lies in the nature of the job itself. Jobs on production lines, for example, afford little or no time for anything other than hooking on widgets as the parts flow by. Obviously, that doesn’t fit your circumstances. Free-effort jobs like yours and your employee’s do allow for the occasional side issue.

So, the question with your employee is, what are the consequences associated with her taking too many personal calls and messages? It bothers you and you think it’s excessive. Why is that? If your employee is simply spending too much time on personal business, then you might want to ask her to work an additional 15 minutes each day, as a way of making up for the loss. She can talk, she just needs to add back the time.

If the interruptions are disturbing meetings with coworkers, this is another problem with a different solution. If coworkers see her off task and complain about it, that’s still a different issue.

So, start by setting up a meeting with your employee. Think of the consequences that currently have you concerned and enter the conversation with these in mind. Start with Mutual Purpose. Explain that you want to be sensitive to her changing needs while also balancing the needs of the company.

In the spirit of being supportive, share what you’re currently doing to be helpful. For example, you advised her to take time off, you’ve agreed to build in flexible time to allow her to talk with lawyers, and so forth. Ask what else you can do to be of help during this stressful time.

Next, explain the challenges currently resulting from your employee’s frequent use of personal calls and e-mail. Don’t make this heavy-handed or punitive, simply state the facts. Once again, make it clear that your goal is to balance her needs with the job requirements. Openly discuss both the challenges and possible solutions.

Here is where you’ll need to focus on the specific consequences you want to mitigate. Are you dealing with number of minutes, unfinished tasks, interruptions, unhappy coworkers, etc.? Identify the issues that are relevant. Ask the employee for steps she can take to either make up for or resolve the negative consequences you’ve outlined. Jointly come up with a solution that meets everyone’s needs. Set clear standards for future behavior and thank her for her willingness to sit down and work through the challenge.

And bless you for wanting to do what’s right for everyone concerned.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Accountability

15 thoughts on “Dealing with Personal Issues at Work”

  1. Dog owner

    Let her make up time. Sorry, if you do that in our company, it’s overtime so now you are paying her overtime to do her job in the first place. Taking a call from home everyday for 2 minutes is different then spending your whole day around your problem. Why should an employer pay an employee for not doing their job? We all have personal problems, who doesn’t. Let me ask you a question since you do not like the leave your problems at the door. You are having work done to your house, would let the worker just sit there on his phone cause he has a personal problem while you are paying him by the hour? I don’t think so. You would tell him to go home and come back when he was ready to work. Same thing. The company is paying you to work. I do understand people need to make phone calls while at work. But the diffence, they do not abuse it. Some people abuse the situation and don’t care if they are at work.

  2. Reta

    An understanding and sympathetic response will help the employee get through this difficult time and will create a loyalty to the job and coworkers that will produce a person more willing to give their all for the work. Continue to support the employee in dealing with the issues that arise and give them counsel and guidelines on the issues that are concerning in the workplace. Do it from a place of caring for the employees complete health or the stress will only make things worse and you risk losing all that you have put into training this person.

  3. Robin Moore

    Are you suggesting a supervisor/manager ask the employee to work 15 minutes after their shift off the clock?

  4. Mike C

    I think you have to be flexible, particularly if you are in a professional role. I am not saying that you expect people to be on line 24/7 nor should the employer expect strictly 9 to 5. You have performance standards and you are expected to meet or exceed those standards. If time is required during the day for family or personal issues then ok, so long as standards are met. At my company we are fortunate enough that we have the tools to do our work almost anywhere at any time which makes it easier to meet our goals. We also have on contract an excellent Employee Assistance Program to counsel staff through difficult times. Certainly a referal to the EAP and support to a valued employee is a no-brainer in these circumstances. If after all that there are performance issues then a different conversation is in order.

  5. Robin Harris

    Are we making an assumption here? Is her work actually suffering because of the distractions? If not, the problem might be with the supervisor. He probably “feels” she’s not finishing work, but doesn’t know for sure. If the supervisor assumes work is not being done, he doesn’t “know.” Which means he’s not tracking her work well. That would indicate some other problem is at play. What would those problems be? I don’t know.

  6. RS

    do you really want people “anxiously engaged?” Or, did you meant “eagerly engaged?”…I really don’t think anxiety is useful, in this case.

  7. Homer Bartlett

    This is another great reason why Results Only Work Environments work so well, and in my opinion mesh quite well with Crucial Conversations. Making up time is fine, if time is one of her deliverables. But for many people time is not the deliverable, the deliverables are project deadlines, client calls or meetings, written reports, etc. If she’s meeting those deliverables, then it’s time to delve a little deeper into how she’s not meeting expectations.
    Getting along well with, and not disrupting co-workers, can be a deliverable too, even if it’s often an unspoken one.

  8. Tom Ruggieri

    You focused on this extremely important issue without one mention of employee assistance programs? Few companies are without them anymore and this is exactly the reason they exist. As you stated, people cannot divorce themselves from their personal lives and they often “bleed” into the workplace, potentially making employees very unproductive. A referral to a professional counselor who understands the right questions to ask, in combination with a good understanding of the company, often produces a very nice outcome. And the employees feel that their employer really does care about them, rather than just focusing on the mutual purpose. I could see that conversation going nowhere with a substance abuser. These problems can be very tricky and asking a supervisor to know how to deal with them by themselves is a lot to ask.

  9. JM Lew

    I was concerned that Kerry never questioned whether the employee with personal issues was accomplishing the work assigned to him/her. If the work is getting done, I don’t believe excessive calls at work are an issue unless they are disruptive to other employees. I also think that whether the employee is hourly or salaried comes in play. I just thought these were legitimate questions to ask prior to a solution.

  10. Adrian

    I think this is a sensitive and compassionate way to deal with a difficult situation. If I were this employee, I would be apologetic and appreciative that the manager brought it to my attention gently rather than giving me a big smackdown when I’m already in an emotional state. I would be inclined to buckle down and try to get my focus back onto work and limit the personal stuff to just the most critical items. Divorce is a devastating life event and everyone copes with it in their own way.

  11. Bruce Wilkinson

    I question that “your goal is to balance her needs with the job requirements.” I would nuance this differently. The goal should be to meet both her needs and the job requirements. A significant subset of employees interpret “balancing” to mean that their needs should prioritized against the job requirements and they get to pick the most important. The correct answer to, “which is most important?” is, “both.” You (the employee) need to keep your job and you need to manage your personal crises effectively. So, I like the option of working extra time to ensure that her productivity doesn’t fall off. I also disagree that this can’t be managed in a “clocked” environment. She can take herself off the clock if she is engaged in personal business and manage those interruptions around important co-worker activities. The kind of employee you value will appreciate the opportunity to keep productivity up so you continue to value her enough to make these accommodations. If she doesn’t feel that she should be required to meet job standards during her period of stress, then that may call for a different conversation.

  12. Tammie

    Great advice. She should take her phone calls off the clock however. I apploud the concern of the employer (wish I had one like this because my personal problems are ones like time off for my childs surgery). I’m glad that there are good employers and I think once the employee is aware of the issue he/she will be co-operative.

  13. Mark Heinze

    Dear Kerry,

    I just wanted to say that your answer to the boss who was concerned about the employee going through the divorce was thoughtful and I enjoyed the way you responded to him. This man sounds like a passionate and caring manager who would be an asset to any company.

    M. Heinze

  14. grizzly bear mom

    In 2006 someone I loved like a brother lost parental rights to his four children and went to prison. I cried at work every day for two weeks until my physical therapist told me to take leave which I did. For the next 3.5 years I took 2 days off a month and drove 600 miles to take my brother’s son to see him. In the meantime I forgot to feed the dog, couldn’t find my way home from work and YES MY WORK PERFORMANCE SUFFERED! My boss called me in. Although there was shame involved in my brother’s circumstances, I explained the situation. Wisely, my boss told me that I was killing myself, I should spend less time with my brother, suggested I see a counselor, and reminded me that I was responsible for my work production; all of which were absolutely right and appropriate to say. He also gave me tips on how I could meet suspense such as developing time lines and putting everything in outlook which was very kind. I did as he suggested, my situation improve which made me feel better AND my WORK PERFORMANCE IMPROVED which also made me feel better. Sometimes all that have control over is filling in your time sheet in an accurate and timely manner, and the ability to successfully do so is a highpoint of your day. I had a much better relationship with my boss afterward.

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