How to help an employee dealing with a divorce


Whether it’s a divorce, separation or breakup, a relationship breakdown will weigh heavy on an employee. How can HR support someone through a personal crisis?

Dealing with divorce can evoke a similar response to grief. There’s the loss of the relationship and the loss of shared dreams and the future you hoped to have together. An employee coping with the loss of a relationship could feel overwhelmed by a flood of difficult emotions.

There’s also all manner of practical issues that might need to be sorted through, such as childcare agreements, splitting assets and establishing new living arrangements. 

While divorce and separation are personal matters, they can take a serious toll on an employee’s wellbeing and how they approach their work. 

With data revealing that 33 per cent of Australian marriages will end in divorce – and many more relationships breaking down – chances are this will affect your people sooner or later.

Bill Kordos, Head of Family Law in Victoria at Australian Family Lawyers, trains companies in how to respond to an employee going through a divorce.

He says it’s not just the emotional side that employers need to be aware of. An employee’s divorce can have legal and financial implications that an employer may need to act on too.

Legal impacts

If an employee is going through a divorce, HR shouldn’t be surprised if some legal issues surface that the organisation needs to address.

It’s extremely common for employers to receive a court order relating to an employee’s divorce, says Kordos.

“In a lot of financial matters, there are disputes about remuneration or interests in partnerships, or what the employee’s shareholdings are, even what their annual leave is. So it covers the gamut of a persons’ employment because it’s all part of the asset pool,” says Kordos.

“Employers often come to us and ask whether they have to give over financial information.”

There’s no hard-and-fast answer to this. 

In many cases, the employer will need to comply and provide the information, but there can be complex situations when handing over the information impedes the privacy of other employees.

“Employers could be in partnerships in which case, if the court subpoenas the partnership agreement, that also affects the privacy of the other partners. So the implications go beyond the one employee’s personal information.

“This is a complex area for lawyers, let alone lay people, so if you do get a subpoena, you need to get legal advice immediately. If it’s an order of the court, then failure to comply with it can leave you open for contempt of court and that’s a very serious matter. You need to treat it seriously.”

When an employer is subpoenaed, the employee should be informed.

“That wouldn’t breach anything in the subpoena. I would definitely recommend they be notified, but if the employee was represented, their lawyer would be notified in any event,” says Kordos.

“Even if the employer complied, it may be that the employee and their legal team take a different view. There’s no question in my mind that an employer needs to be transparent and up front about matters like this that concern an employee directly.”

Responding to an employee’s divorce

While HR should be prepared to deal with any legal ramifications that may arise from an employee’s divorce, as ‘people professionals’, they also have a critical role to play in supporting the employee’s wellbeing.

If an employee discloses upsetting personal information, it can be a fine line to respond in a way that’s caring and compassionate, while maintaining professionalism.

Kordos’ advice is to take the employee’s lead.

“Let them come to you. Employers need to be careful not to ask inappropriate questions or get into territory that isn’t relevant… What you need to know is how you can help the employee, and what systems you have in place to assist them. Ask open-ended questions, but only insofar as it affects their employment or their ability to do their work.”

If the employee offers personal information about their relationship breakdown, that might be an invitation to discuss what they’re going through more openly.

The boundaries between work and personal life are far more blurred than they once were, so an employee shouldn’t feel they need to keep all personal issues to themselves. HR can either be that source of support, or suggest they talk to their manager, a colleague, or mentor, or seek external support through the company’s EAP.

Training employees in how to respond to an employee’s personal difficulties, including how to have difficult conversations at work, could  help to create a safe space for employees to raise these issues. Also, steps to take when an employee discloses a relationship breakdown could be incorporated into existing wellbeing policies. 

Workplaces generally have a sick leave and bereavement policy, and, in Kordos’ view, life traumas shouldn’t be treated any differently.

“If the statistics are anything to go by, there will definitely be people affected by divorce and separation in your workplace. It’s about communicating the support systems that are available to employees. The policy could include access to counselling, crisis accommodation or helping them obtain advice on where they stand for a property settlement.”

Flexible work arrangements could also form part of the relationship breakdown policy. 

Alternative working arrangements might need to stay in place for an extended period of time while the employee manages implications from a divorce, which could range from changed childcare arrangements to relocation.

“Things like time off in lieu might be necessary. I also think employers should be offering some time off when these events occur… This shows, in a very real way, your support and understanding that these things occur and impact people really significantly.

“Work with them to create a roadmap out of the fog that they’re in.”

Some other steps HR could take to support an employee going through a relationship breakdown include:

  • Consider lightening the employee’s load: Could some of their work be reallocated for a period of time while they are in the thick of dealing with their own personal issues? Or if the employee is responsible for some emotionally challenging work, could they take a break from this type of work and instead focus on lighter topics for a period?
  • Be compassionate and let them know that you understand that grieving the loss of a relationship takes time.
  • Check in with the employee and ask how they’re faring on a regular basis.
  • Encourage the employee to practice self-care (here are some tips you could share).
  • Offer the employee the option to work from home if they need some breathing space and time away from the physical workplace. However, make sure this is led by the employee. They may prefer spending more time in the workplace if their partner is moving out of their shared home, for example.

Each employee’s experience will be unique, so it’s important not to assume you know what’s best for them. While one employee might feel relieved by having some work responsibilities lifted for a time, another may feel the carpet has been pulled out from under them if their work life starts changing on them. For many, work can be an anchor through a turbulent period.


Not sure how to respond to an employee going through a divorce? It might be helpful to hone your skills in emotional intelligence. Book in for AHRI’s course on Applied Emotional Intelligence on 12 August.


 

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How to help an employee dealing with a divorce


Whether it’s a divorce, separation or breakup, a relationship breakdown will weigh heavy on an employee. How can HR support someone through a personal crisis?

Dealing with divorce can evoke a similar response to grief. There’s the loss of the relationship and the loss of shared dreams and the future you hoped to have together. An employee coping with the loss of a relationship could feel overwhelmed by a flood of difficult emotions.

There’s also all manner of practical issues that might need to be sorted through, such as childcare agreements, splitting assets and establishing new living arrangements. 

While divorce and separation are personal matters, they can take a serious toll on an employee’s wellbeing and how they approach their work. 

With data revealing that 33 per cent of Australian marriages will end in divorce – and many more relationships breaking down – chances are this will affect your people sooner or later.

Bill Kordos, Head of Family Law in Victoria at Australian Family Lawyers, trains companies in how to respond to an employee going through a divorce.

He says it’s not just the emotional side that employers need to be aware of. An employee’s divorce can have legal and financial implications that an employer may need to act on too.

Legal impacts

If an employee is going through a divorce, HR shouldn’t be surprised if some legal issues surface that the organisation needs to address.

It’s extremely common for employers to receive a court order relating to an employee’s divorce, says Kordos.

“In a lot of financial matters, there are disputes about remuneration or interests in partnerships, or what the employee’s shareholdings are, even what their annual leave is. So it covers the gamut of a persons’ employment because it’s all part of the asset pool,” says Kordos.

“Employers often come to us and ask whether they have to give over financial information.”

There’s no hard-and-fast answer to this. 

In many cases, the employer will need to comply and provide the information, but there can be complex situations when handing over the information impedes the privacy of other employees.

“Employers could be in partnerships in which case, if the court subpoenas the partnership agreement, that also affects the privacy of the other partners. So the implications go beyond the one employee’s personal information.

“This is a complex area for lawyers, let alone lay people, so if you do get a subpoena, you need to get legal advice immediately. If it’s an order of the court, then failure to comply with it can leave you open for contempt of court and that’s a very serious matter. You need to treat it seriously.”

When an employer is subpoenaed, the employee should be informed.

“That wouldn’t breach anything in the subpoena. I would definitely recommend they be notified, but if the employee was represented, their lawyer would be notified in any event,” says Kordos.

“Even if the employer complied, it may be that the employee and their legal team take a different view. There’s no question in my mind that an employer needs to be transparent and up front about matters like this that concern an employee directly.”

Responding to an employee’s divorce

While HR should be prepared to deal with any legal ramifications that may arise from an employee’s divorce, as ‘people professionals’, they also have a critical role to play in supporting the employee’s wellbeing.

If an employee discloses upsetting personal information, it can be a fine line to respond in a way that’s caring and compassionate, while maintaining professionalism.

Kordos’ advice is to take the employee’s lead.

“Let them come to you. Employers need to be careful not to ask inappropriate questions or get into territory that isn’t relevant… What you need to know is how you can help the employee, and what systems you have in place to assist them. Ask open-ended questions, but only insofar as it affects their employment or their ability to do their work.”

If the employee offers personal information about their relationship breakdown, that might be an invitation to discuss what they’re going through more openly.

The boundaries between work and personal life are far more blurred than they once were, so an employee shouldn’t feel they need to keep all personal issues to themselves. HR can either be that source of support, or suggest they talk to their manager, a colleague, or mentor, or seek external support through the company’s EAP.

Training employees in how to respond to an employee’s personal difficulties, including how to have difficult conversations at work, could  help to create a safe space for employees to raise these issues. Also, steps to take when an employee discloses a relationship breakdown could be incorporated into existing wellbeing policies. 

Workplaces generally have a sick leave and bereavement policy, and, in Kordos’ view, life traumas shouldn’t be treated any differently.

“If the statistics are anything to go by, there will definitely be people affected by divorce and separation in your workplace. It’s about communicating the support systems that are available to employees. The policy could include access to counselling, crisis accommodation or helping them obtain advice on where they stand for a property settlement.”

Flexible work arrangements could also form part of the relationship breakdown policy. 

Alternative working arrangements might need to stay in place for an extended period of time while the employee manages implications from a divorce, which could range from changed childcare arrangements to relocation.

“Things like time off in lieu might be necessary. I also think employers should be offering some time off when these events occur… This shows, in a very real way, your support and understanding that these things occur and impact people really significantly.

“Work with them to create a roadmap out of the fog that they’re in.”

Some other steps HR could take to support an employee going through a relationship breakdown include:

  • Consider lightening the employee’s load: Could some of their work be reallocated for a period of time while they are in the thick of dealing with their own personal issues? Or if the employee is responsible for some emotionally challenging work, could they take a break from this type of work and instead focus on lighter topics for a period?
  • Be compassionate and let them know that you understand that grieving the loss of a relationship takes time.
  • Check in with the employee and ask how they’re faring on a regular basis.
  • Encourage the employee to practice self-care (here are some tips you could share).
  • Offer the employee the option to work from home if they need some breathing space and time away from the physical workplace. However, make sure this is led by the employee. They may prefer spending more time in the workplace if their partner is moving out of their shared home, for example.

Each employee’s experience will be unique, so it’s important not to assume you know what’s best for them. While one employee might feel relieved by having some work responsibilities lifted for a time, another may feel the carpet has been pulled out from under them if their work life starts changing on them. For many, work can be an anchor through a turbulent period.


Not sure how to respond to an employee going through a divorce? It might be helpful to hone your skills in emotional intelligence. Book in for AHRI’s course on Applied Emotional Intelligence on 12 August.


 

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