Workplace ethical dilemma: poor performance due to mental health challenges


How should HR respond when an employee’s personal life is interfering with their performance at work? AHRI members share their responses to this month’s workplace ethical dilemma.

As part of a new content series, HRM has teamed up with The Ethics Centre to present an ethical dilemma for AHRI members to respond to. In our first instalment, we dive into performance issues related to personal matters outside of the workplace.

The ethical dilemma – poor performance due to mental health

Theo is the e-commerce marketing manager for an online apparel store, responsible for its email and e-commerce marketing campaigns. Twelve months ago, he lost a family member to cancer and took bereavement leave.

When he returned, he was having difficulty concentrating at work and was frequently upset. He often had angry outbursts when receiving feedback and was no longer participating in social events with his team. Theo’s manager, Emily, arranged for him to access the employee assistance program (EAP) and he has been in counselling for six months.

Theo has made Emily aware that he is getting treatment for depression and anxiety, which she has reported to HR. Theo is not improving and his poor work practices are beginning to impact on his colleagues. Last week, he mistakenly sent a major retail offer out to the entire customer database with the wrong discount code, inadvertently allowing customers to access 25 per cent off all full-price stock, resulting in huge financial losses. 

Emily has advised you of her intention to let Theo go over the incident and has asked for HR’s support. What should you do?

Cecilia Jones, Self-employed HR consultant and coach

This is a tricky situation that clearly can’t continue, for everyone’s benefit, including Theo’s. He is having a rough time, and although he made a significant mistake, does this really mean he should be given the flick?

From a purely business perspective, employers should always avoid sacking people. Termination can be a costly exercise, both financially and from a reputation perspective. It can also impact the morale of the other employees.

The business is aware that Theo is being treated for a mental illness and this can compound the risk on the employer if the dismissal was to be challenged. Apart from the business risk, is terminating Theo’s employment the right thing to do morally? Apart from addressing his performance issues in a constructive way, broader support beyond a referral to the EAP should be considered.

Theo is struggling and he needs support while at work. This may mean that he needs a break from his current role while he recovers from a significant life event. There is also a high chance he may be relieved to be given a role with less responsibilities. Employers have an obligation to support employees who are having a rough time. After all, this can happen to any of us. This support does not begin and end with referral to the employee assistance program.

Jason Clark, Director, Worklogic

It seems Emily has managed Theo’s mental health well, but I would be curious about how she has managed his performance. What sort of feedback she has provided and has she documented his history of poor work practices? It might be that she is fatigued from having to manage Theo’s personal situation and this recent incident is a convenient way of moving him on. In any event, we still need to address poor performance, even when the employee has mental health concerns. It needs to be done reasonably and in such a way as to avoid causing further detriment to his welfare.

I would suggest we have a formal performance discussion with Theo to understand the how and why of what occurred in this instance. This could also be an opportunity to address the angry outbursts and lack of participation in social events.

We need to give Theo an opportunity to address his performance. Given the severity of the financial loss, I would consider recommending a first and final warning, rather than termination. A termination is the least appropriate way to address this issue. While we need to balance our requirement to support Theo while he manages his mental health and to help him re-engage in the workplace, we still need to maintain standards of performance.

Rod Francisco FCPHR, Manager People and Culture, Mackay Regional Council

First and foremost, we must realise that Theo is not a freedom dove and the notion that he is being ‘let go’ is as inaccurate as it is distasteful. I would seek to understand the complete context of Theo’s performance and the impact of his personal issues on the quantitative and qualitative aspects of his work.

Key things need to be considered, such as whether it was only work performance that was impacting his colleagues, or was his health also having an impact? It is important to understand that his colleagues have possibly been covering for his reducing performance over time, due to high-quality personal relationships, but this incident could been the real ‘letting go’ – being jettisoned by his colleagues who could no longer support him.

Additionally, I would understand what support was being provided in the workplace for the impact of his health condition on his behaviours. A telling sign is the withdrawal from social events – had he also withdrawn from seeking advice and guidance when he was struggling? Was this major error the culmination of a frightened and disoriented employee who had been brushed off to the EAP by a relatively uncaring supervisor, knowing that if he admits to worsening performance he is likely to be ‘let go’? We need to factor in the bigger picture here.

What would you do?

Have you experienced an workplace ethical dilemma like this? If so, how did you manage it? Do you agree with the approaches outlined above or would you take a different tack? Let us know in the comment section below.

If you’re struggling to find the path forward on an ethical conflict at work or at home, there is a service that can help. Ethi-call, run by The Ethics Centre, is a free helpline dedicated to guiding people through life’s hardest choices.


Take your learning a step further by signing up for AHRI’s short course, Building an Ethical Culture, to learn about HR’s role in helping leaders to make ethical and appropriate decisions at work. The next course is held on 15 October 2021.


This article first appeared in the August 2021 edition of HRM magazine.

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4 Comments
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David B
David B
1 month ago

Is an illness or injury that impairs cognitive ability for someone undertaking cognitive tasks any different from someone with a physical injury undertakign physical tasks? Subject to legislation, I’m not sure you can terminate the employment of someone who is ill.

Andrew Davenport
Andrew Davenport
1 month ago

In my personal view I’d seperate the issue into three parts 1) Underperformance and 2) Medical Condition 3)Impact on team. For the Medical Condition, I’d prepare a letter for the employee to take to their treating practioner which outlines the requirements of the role, and seek a response indicating whether they can meet the inherent requirements of the role, and if not, what reasonable adjustments are necessary. After receiving the responses from the treating practioner, I’d then run a performance improvement process considering the responses from the treating practioner, which the outcome could include termination of employment. I’d then turn… Read more »

Deb
Deb
1 month ago

To place this into context, first, let us remember that Theo is the E-Commerce marketing manager for retail during the covid-19 Pandemic which has been ongoing for at least 18 months, subsequently a mentally challenging time for most employees with employee burnout at high levels. Additionally, he is dealing with loss and grief of a family member. Whilst the employment agreement is a contractual one, there is a relationship aspect as well. Regular HR interactions with Theo during this period, and performance monitoring is essential to ensure that the communication pathway is open. Communication partnering with Theo’s treating medical practitioner… Read more »

Luke Draper
Luke Draper
1 month ago

There are risks here for the business (financial or other loss), legal risks around duty of care to the employee and other employees) & risks to the further health of the employee which could be seen as aggravating an underlying/existing condition if not managed appropriately and in a timely manner.

The most important thing to do is speak to the employee and understand how they are and whether they have any insight into how they are feeling about performing their substantive role at this time?

This will drive all of the future decisions and actions.

More on HRM

Workplace ethical dilemma: poor performance due to mental health challenges


How should HR respond when an employee’s personal life is interfering with their performance at work? AHRI members share their responses to this month’s workplace ethical dilemma.

As part of a new content series, HRM has teamed up with The Ethics Centre to present an ethical dilemma for AHRI members to respond to. In our first instalment, we dive into performance issues related to personal matters outside of the workplace.

The ethical dilemma – poor performance due to mental health

Theo is the e-commerce marketing manager for an online apparel store, responsible for its email and e-commerce marketing campaigns. Twelve months ago, he lost a family member to cancer and took bereavement leave.

When he returned, he was having difficulty concentrating at work and was frequently upset. He often had angry outbursts when receiving feedback and was no longer participating in social events with his team. Theo’s manager, Emily, arranged for him to access the employee assistance program (EAP) and he has been in counselling for six months.

Theo has made Emily aware that he is getting treatment for depression and anxiety, which she has reported to HR. Theo is not improving and his poor work practices are beginning to impact on his colleagues. Last week, he mistakenly sent a major retail offer out to the entire customer database with the wrong discount code, inadvertently allowing customers to access 25 per cent off all full-price stock, resulting in huge financial losses. 

Emily has advised you of her intention to let Theo go over the incident and has asked for HR’s support. What should you do?

Cecilia Jones, Self-employed HR consultant and coach

This is a tricky situation that clearly can’t continue, for everyone’s benefit, including Theo’s. He is having a rough time, and although he made a significant mistake, does this really mean he should be given the flick?

From a purely business perspective, employers should always avoid sacking people. Termination can be a costly exercise, both financially and from a reputation perspective. It can also impact the morale of the other employees.

The business is aware that Theo is being treated for a mental illness and this can compound the risk on the employer if the dismissal was to be challenged. Apart from the business risk, is terminating Theo’s employment the right thing to do morally? Apart from addressing his performance issues in a constructive way, broader support beyond a referral to the EAP should be considered.

Theo is struggling and he needs support while at work. This may mean that he needs a break from his current role while he recovers from a significant life event. There is also a high chance he may be relieved to be given a role with less responsibilities. Employers have an obligation to support employees who are having a rough time. After all, this can happen to any of us. This support does not begin and end with referral to the employee assistance program.

Jason Clark, Director, Worklogic

It seems Emily has managed Theo’s mental health well, but I would be curious about how she has managed his performance. What sort of feedback she has provided and has she documented his history of poor work practices? It might be that she is fatigued from having to manage Theo’s personal situation and this recent incident is a convenient way of moving him on. In any event, we still need to address poor performance, even when the employee has mental health concerns. It needs to be done reasonably and in such a way as to avoid causing further detriment to his welfare.

I would suggest we have a formal performance discussion with Theo to understand the how and why of what occurred in this instance. This could also be an opportunity to address the angry outbursts and lack of participation in social events.

We need to give Theo an opportunity to address his performance. Given the severity of the financial loss, I would consider recommending a first and final warning, rather than termination. A termination is the least appropriate way to address this issue. While we need to balance our requirement to support Theo while he manages his mental health and to help him re-engage in the workplace, we still need to maintain standards of performance.

Rod Francisco FCPHR, Manager People and Culture, Mackay Regional Council

First and foremost, we must realise that Theo is not a freedom dove and the notion that he is being ‘let go’ is as inaccurate as it is distasteful. I would seek to understand the complete context of Theo’s performance and the impact of his personal issues on the quantitative and qualitative aspects of his work.

Key things need to be considered, such as whether it was only work performance that was impacting his colleagues, or was his health also having an impact? It is important to understand that his colleagues have possibly been covering for his reducing performance over time, due to high-quality personal relationships, but this incident could been the real ‘letting go’ – being jettisoned by his colleagues who could no longer support him.

Additionally, I would understand what support was being provided in the workplace for the impact of his health condition on his behaviours. A telling sign is the withdrawal from social events – had he also withdrawn from seeking advice and guidance when he was struggling? Was this major error the culmination of a frightened and disoriented employee who had been brushed off to the EAP by a relatively uncaring supervisor, knowing that if he admits to worsening performance he is likely to be ‘let go’? We need to factor in the bigger picture here.

What would you do?

Have you experienced an workplace ethical dilemma like this? If so, how did you manage it? Do you agree with the approaches outlined above or would you take a different tack? Let us know in the comment section below.

If you’re struggling to find the path forward on an ethical conflict at work or at home, there is a service that can help. Ethi-call, run by The Ethics Centre, is a free helpline dedicated to guiding people through life’s hardest choices.


Take your learning a step further by signing up for AHRI’s short course, Building an Ethical Culture, to learn about HR’s role in helping leaders to make ethical and appropriate decisions at work. The next course is held on 15 October 2021.


This article first appeared in the August 2021 edition of HRM magazine.

guest
4 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
David B
David B
1 month ago

Is an illness or injury that impairs cognitive ability for someone undertaking cognitive tasks any different from someone with a physical injury undertakign physical tasks? Subject to legislation, I’m not sure you can terminate the employment of someone who is ill.

Andrew Davenport
Andrew Davenport
1 month ago

In my personal view I’d seperate the issue into three parts 1) Underperformance and 2) Medical Condition 3)Impact on team. For the Medical Condition, I’d prepare a letter for the employee to take to their treating practioner which outlines the requirements of the role, and seek a response indicating whether they can meet the inherent requirements of the role, and if not, what reasonable adjustments are necessary. After receiving the responses from the treating practioner, I’d then run a performance improvement process considering the responses from the treating practioner, which the outcome could include termination of employment. I’d then turn… Read more »

Deb
Deb
1 month ago

To place this into context, first, let us remember that Theo is the E-Commerce marketing manager for retail during the covid-19 Pandemic which has been ongoing for at least 18 months, subsequently a mentally challenging time for most employees with employee burnout at high levels. Additionally, he is dealing with loss and grief of a family member. Whilst the employment agreement is a contractual one, there is a relationship aspect as well. Regular HR interactions with Theo during this period, and performance monitoring is essential to ensure that the communication pathway is open. Communication partnering with Theo’s treating medical practitioner… Read more »

Luke Draper
Luke Draper
1 month ago

There are risks here for the business (financial or other loss), legal risks around duty of care to the employee and other employees) & risks to the further health of the employee which could be seen as aggravating an underlying/existing condition if not managed appropriately and in a timely manner.

The most important thing to do is speak to the employee and understand how they are and whether they have any insight into how they are feeling about performing their substantive role at this time?

This will drive all of the future decisions and actions.

More on HRM