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FrontLine Supervisor: Questions and Answers

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This Information is for general information purposes only. For specific guidance on handling individual employee problems, consult with your Employee Assistance Professional.

Employee depression
Employee absent without leave
Employee upset over EAP referral
EAP referral and the Americans with Disabilities
Licensed therapist as supervisor responsibilities
Employee legal threats
Employee denies performance problems
Employee health problems
Employee excessive absenteeism
Employee performance evaluations

My employee is obviously depressed. I know what depression looks like because it runs in my family. I feel obligated to help but how can I do so without saying to her that she looks depressed? I am watching her get worse.

Avoid discussing depression and instead focus on performance issues that affect productivity or service. Can you see that she avoids customers, makes mistakes, or is forgetful? Is she slow to complete assignments, or are there absenteeism or tardiness problems? If so, be supportive but raise these issues with her as the reasons for making a supervisor referral. It is okay to tell your employee what you observe. This can be more effective in motivating her to visit the EAP than discussing with her your impressions about her apparent depression. Employees may deny their depression, but not deny their performance issues, making follow through with an EAP referral more likely. Ask her what causes her apparent inability to complete assignments, apparent sadness, or loss of excitement for her work. These are not diagnostic questions, but may produce from her a personal explanation that supports the performance issues for the referral.

My employee has been absent without leave for three days. He hasn't phoned. No one has seen him, and he hasn't returned any calls. He was absent without leave six days last fall. Should I refer him to the EAP when he gets back?

Check with your personnel specialist or existing policies for guidance on dealing with an employee absent without leave (AWOL). You can't know for sure when your employee will return, so delaying an EAP referral wouldn't be recommended. If a serious behavioral-medical disorder underlies your employee's disappearance, an EAP referral now could make the difference between salvaging your employee or losing him entirely. If you send a certified letter to your employee, you could include your supervisor referral along with it. Although job abandonment and AWOL problems are serious infractions, they can sometimes be explained by certain medical illnesses or crises that overwhelm an employee's judgment to report the absence. These conditions could include a variety of mental illnesses, legal crises, alcohol or drug addictions, or even frightened employees with acute health problems. AWOL employees frustrate organizations because work must be reassigned and relief workers found. An EAP referral should always accompany any administrative or disciplinary response.

I referred my employee to the EAP for poor job performance. She became very upset, saying that I was retaliating against her over another matter I consider closed. Can the referral of an employee to the EAP ever be considered retaliatory?

Employee assistance programs are not disciplinary tools; therefore, a referral to the EAP for performance problems that can be substantiated would not be retaliatory. Unfortunately, many supervisors refer too late to EAPs. When this happens, use of the EAP may appear as a "pre-step" to taking a disciplinary action or discharging an employee. In such instances, employees will connect the EAP to the organization's disciplinary process and resist accepting the referral. When the supervisor refers in anger, the same response from an employee may be observed. The supervisor referral feels retaliatory. To increase cooperation, be supportive and remind employees about the purpose of a supervisor referral - helping employees improve performance in the event a personal problem is affecting job performance.

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) covers employees with qualifying physical and mental impairments. Is it true that employees are also covered if the employer mistakenly regards them as having such impairments even if they really don't?

If you regard your employee as having such an impairment, even if mistaken, he or she could still be protected under the law if you took an action based upon that misperception and it was later determined to be discriminatory. With regard to a common supervision misstep, this makes it important not to label or seek to determine underlying psychological diagnoses most of which are covered under the act - to explain employees' performance problems. Instead, focus on performance, ability to accomplish essential job functions, and referral to the EAP when standards are not met. Never make statements to others about what you think or imagine are your employee's personal problems. Actions you take later could be examined to determine whether they discriminated against your employee. The ADA would apply if your action were determined to be based upon a covered impairment you thought existed rather than the merits of performance alone.

I am both a supervisor and a licensed therapist in my organization. Does the principle of not getting involved in the clinical and referral of my employee's problem still apply to me?

The EAP principle that supervisors should avoid diagnostic and referral involvement in their employees' personal problems is not based solely upon the issue of clinical skills, but also on role conflict. Collective EAP experience abundantly shows that the risk of losing an employee increases dramatically with such involvement. Diagnostic skills of supervisors, where they exist, do not reduce this risk. Ironically, risk is likely to increase, because troubled employees perceive the struggle supervisors must face between tolerating delays in improving performance and taking administrative actions. Stepping out of the supervisor role forces the supervisor to accept or ignore case management activities that are often necessary to help an employee. These may include examining problems of non-adherence to clinical recommendations, motivational counseling, and consulting with service providers.

My employee writes memos or makes statements referencing his "legal advisor" when I correct his performance. These memos make me angry and admittedly they are intimidating. How should I respond?

Although you should be concerned and thoughtful when managing the performance of any employee, the organization's needs still must be met. Be sure to follow your organization's policies, procedures, and work rules consistently. Keep your supervisor, and appropriate human resource or other management representatives, abreast of your interactions. They can help you feel less intimidated so you can focus on productivity. Since you are troubled by this conduct, meet with the EAP to discuss your supervision style to ensure that you are not provoking your employee in some way. The EAP can offer guidance on personal communication and supervision practices. An attempt to intimidate management by referring to legal advisors is inappropriate, so this could become a separate conduct issue if it continues.

For years, my employee has rejected my accounts of her performance problems. She dismisses my documentation as not factual. Discussions typically include convincing her that past discussions have actually occurred. What can I do?

It is not uncommon for employees to deny that discussions about performance took place, particularly if long periods of time have passed since their occurrence. Although your documentation may be accurate, but disputed, you may need to use it anyway to support any adverse action you propose. Obviously you are frustrated at not getting agreement from your employee that the performance pattern exists. You may never be successful at this task, but establishing a reciprocating documentation plan can help. Give your employee a copy of your documentation or a corrective letter and invite her to respond in writing, agreeing to it or rejecting it with her own written account. This slowly builds a more effective record of your attempts to correct performance and ends the verbal "confront-deny" pattern. You may get the performance changes you seek because the argumentative behavior no longer controls the supervision relationship.

My employee is obese and for years has fallen asleep at meetings. He says he's concentrating, but I just bet he has sleep apnea. I've been patient because I had it myself and I don't want to embarrass him. Can I refer him to the EAP?

If your employee appears to be falling asleep at meetings, document this as the performance issue to justify a supervisor referral. Although you had sleep apnea yourself, and your employee may have it too, you do not know this for sure. His condition could be related to many other health conditions, including a drug problem. Be careful about unwittingly participating in "armchair diagnosis," which includes subjectively ruling in or ruling out a medical reason for performance problems. Sympathy and your own experience with sleep apnea have led you to postpone an EAP referral that might have led to effective help for his condition. You will avoid embarrassing your employee and make it easier to refer him by not discussing his medical condition or his obesity. Focus only on the sleep problem.

My employee has severe absenteeism problems that have affected morale. He has good skills, but his coworkers are complaining. I feel a lot of pressure to terminate him. I fear using the EAP because this might delay his departure.

Absenteeism problems are highly amenable to EAP intervention, particularly when you see evidence of your employee's skills and abilities. For this reason alone, you should consider using the EAP. Experience shows that the employee and your organization will be better off if you make the referral. You would be feeling less pressure now if you had referred earlier when the attendance problems first emerged, but do not allow this misstep to dissuade you from referral now. You will probably see improvement in his attendance pattern the moment you make the supervisor referral. This is a natural response, but it won't last without follow-through with the EAP's recommendations. Act to support your employee when the pattern stops, or follow through with your next step when or if the attendance pattern recurs.

My employees are frequently irate and nearly rebellious at the outcome of their performance evaluations each year. I dread this annual duty of mine and, as a result I skip it periodically. How can I minimize their reaction?

Unfortunately, the simple answer of "grade as fairly as possible," is not a guarantee that employees will accept their performance evaluations. Employees who work very closely with each other are more likely to be upset over performance evaluations when they are dissimilar. They believe they have an accurate perception of their own work quality and that of their peers. Frequent communication with the supervisor is essential so that annual evaluations are less of a surprise or shock. Consider meeting briefly and privately with each of your employees four times a year (including the annual performance review). Be specific. Ask the employee for a self-evaluation. Then provide your feedback and judgment of his or her work. Justify your ratings if you disagree. This process improves your relationship with each employee and reduces conflict at the final evaluation.