It is almost impossible to keep work and personal lives completely separate, and most small-business owners recognise that significant events in an employee's life can rarely be left completely at the door.
This update was published in Small Business Update 50 - February 2008
Small Business Update from Atom Content Marketing is a monthly magazine for people running their own business. Articles vary in length and cover 'hot topics', issues of importance, and current affairs.
In general, an employee's personal life is not your business. But performance at work is your concern and you are entitled to address it. In doing so, you may have to support an employee through a personal crisis.
Warning signs of a personal problem include out-of-character behaviour, such as poor time-keeping, tetchiness, absenteeism or a persistent drop in performance. As an employer, you have a legal duty to help staff deal with work-related mental health, so you will need to establish whether your employee's problem is linked to work.
Invite them for an informal interview to discuss their performance and be clear that this is not a disciplinary hearing. Concentrate on instances of poor performance and ask whether they are experiencing any workplace problems. If it is a work issue, you should address it through appropriate workplace mechanisms.
If it is not work-related, you will have to tread more carefully - but it nevertheless makes good business sense to be supportive. In general, you should limit your discussion to how a problem is affecting your employee's work; you are not in a counselling relationship with your employee, and could even find yourself breaching your duty of care if you offer inappropriate advice.
You are likely to be able to offer practical help for some problems. If your employee has childcare difficulties, they are entitled to parental leave; if they are caring for a sick relative, you could offer flexible working; if they have an emergency involving a dependant, you are obliged to give them reasonable time off. Giving compassionate leave for these and other problems can prevent escalation.
If your employee's problem is more personal, such as an addiction or a relationship breakdown, avoid becoming directly involved. Instead, encourage your employee to seek treatment or counselling, perhaps through an Employee Assistance Programme (www.eapa.org.uk). They are not obliged to take your advice; but you may be able to make it a more attractive option if you offer paid sick leave to receive treatment and temporarily reduce their workload.
You should underpin your support strategy with a review of your employee's workload. Scale this back, if necessary, or give your employee achievable goals that will help them see clear progress as their situation improves. Conduct regular, informal performance reviews to help your employee overcome any work-related difficulties.
If your employee's behaviour continues to cause you concern, you may have to fall back on your disciplinary procedures. If so, be sure to follow the Acas code of practice and give a clear indication of when disciplinary proceedings will have to be initiated.
Your final option is to consider dismissal, but only after the disciplinary procedure has been correctly followed and all reasonable options exhausted. In the event that your former employee takes you to a tribunal, you will have to show that you have procedure to the letter.
Read the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform's guide to the right to time off
Read the Acas guide to workplace disciplinary procedures on the Acas website
Disclaimer: This article from Atom Content Marketing is for general guidance only, for businesses in the United Kingdom governed by the laws of England. Atom Content Marketing, expert contributors and ICAEW (as distributor) disclaim all liability for any errors or omissions.
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