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.