Three Things HR can Do to Relieve Employee Suffering

HR professionals working in American Corporations and small businesses wear many hats. The overall role is to align talent strategies with business goals & ensure compliance with regulations.  In the course of their work with individuals in transition, however, they are witness to various human reactions to change.  With change comes distress.  Along the way, HR professionals have the opportunity to prevent distress and support employees through it or, ignore it through indifference and poor planning.

Two basic sources of Employee distress at work

Employee distress at work can come from employer-initiated changes as a necessary part of doing business today: changes in organizational structure, supervisor, work processes and procedures, negative performance evaluations and layoffs. On the other hand, though a company could be stable various personal issues may increasingly affect employee thoughts while at work: divorce, spouse or partner out of work; illness; child behavior problems at school, drug abuse; alcoholism, financial difficulties or death a loved one.  The list goes on.

HR’s role in managing human behavior

HR helps employees through change in three distinct ways

  1. Sensible implementation of company-initiated change
  2. Respectful interventions when employee personal crises effect work performance
  3. Preventing prolonged unethical or abusive practices

1. Sensible implementation of company-initiated change

The it’s the company initiating change, HR professionals play a strong role in planning and anticipating human reactions.  Changes that affect how employees do their work, who they report to or other factors that change their day-to-day work activities typically draw strong reactions. Remember “Who Moved My Cheese?” First, any change of this kind better be based on a good business reason because it will be a significant disruption.  I believe in the “don’t mess with employee routines unless it will improve profits or company sustainability” theory of change at work. Employees should be given an explanation that first, acknowledges it as a change employees will have reactions to, that it is natural to feel frustrated, and second, indicates how the change is needed for a long-term positive impact on profits/expenses/ revenue.

Another way to help smooth unpopular transitions is to manage their implementation. This means warning employees in advance where possible or breaking big changes into phases that give employees time to adjust.  While it isn’t always possible to provide advance notice, warning employees and helping them through a transition can save massive headaches resulting from turmoil, gossip, disgruntlement and so forth as employees vent their frustrations to peers or supervisors who may be powerless to offer explanations or support.

Finally, provide charts, maps and tools that are easy for employees to reference and glean useful information. If you’re changing medical plans with an associated employee cost increase, make a chart of the old and new with dollar differences.  Yes it is highlighting negative information but it is also giving them information to make financial plans and budgets.

There are hundreds of free resources on managing change in the workplace.

2.  Respectful interventions when employee personal crises effect work performance

Okay.  For this one, you will have to notice subtle changes and recognize the early signs like when a supervisor complains about a good employee whose performance has declined.  Prepare yourself. You must also be comfortable noticing and talking about feelings! When the supervisor first approaches you, he/she may be describing signs of suffering and/or temporary impairment caused by an event or the employee’s reaction to an upsetting event. Early intervention is key to preventing further performance problems as well as employee relations among coworkers in their unit. Employees can get nasty when someone isn’t pulling their weight. They can blame the employee and become judgmental — lacking a bigger picture view.

You will have to be comfortable walking the fine line between compassionate noticing and snooping. You may be asked to allow something you know you can’t approve but you can say no in a compassionate way.  Say the employee wants extra paid time off but doesn’t have any left. Even though you may have to say no to this, you can offer creative alternatives – two-weeks of part-time work, leaving early one day per week, etc.  In addition, an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is a wonderful support and structure to help HR professionals promote employee well-being.  Employee suffering in reaction to upsetting events or personal changes don’t have to be permanent.  They have a  beginning, middle and end.  Getting good support can shorten healing time and prevent the onset of more serious symptoms that come from repression and denial.  Simply speaking to a sympathetic expert early on can make a huge positive difference in the outcome.

An increasing issue for employees at work is mental illness.  Every HR manager should know the signs of common mental illness such as depression and have some means of providing education to supervisors.  Postpartum depression and other situational depressions become more difficult to treat the longer they are ignored.  You would see clear signs at work: worsening performance levels; difficulty concentrating or remembering things; withdrawal from co-workers; weight loss and increasing requests for time off.  Mental health experts urge employers to provide psycho-educational materials to supervisors and employees and a basic EAP is really essential here. Finally, watch for signs of trauma after a workplace event such as: serious injury, assault or crime that involves co-workers.  Here is one of many resources you can access for help in this area: The Workplace Trauma Center.

Finally, when intervening with an employee, consider whether the supervisor needs to be brought into the communication loop.  HIPAA and other privacy concerns as well as the good of the employee and company must be balanced here. But when faced with this dilemma, I often choose to provide a little helpful information that will prevent the supervisor from unknowingly making the situation worse.

Most HR folks are naturally great in this kind of situation.

3. Preventing prolonged unethical or abusive practices

This situation is tougher though it luckily doesn’t come up quite as often as the other two.  As an expert in abuse and intimidation in the workplace, I know that HR professionals are placed in difficult situations that require some deep thinking. If a company owner doesn’t want to fire an offending supervisor, you will likely be watching employees suffer.  HR’s options are to work on convincing the owner why this is a bad plan (call me for a free consult on persuasive facts to sell this idea); coach the offending supervisor; and/or provide advice and survival techniques to staff.

When the issues are mild any combination of these approaches could work.  However, I have seen and read about some incredible boss/subordinate abuse that goes way beyond anything that should be tolerated in the workplace.  Unfortunately, some of these required an HR professional to look the other way or acquiesce.  I know, it isn’t the typical scenario but it happens. In most cases of serious and ongoing abuse employees sued their employer. Sometimes they win. Even when they didn’t win, court proceedings were public so all the world discovered the cruelty of company disrespectful or negligent practices.  The greatest selling point to the owner in this situation is the risk that a bullying boss may push a victim into depression or other incapacitation.  In one case I know of, the supervisor was so vindictive and controlling towards a particular employee that she made it clear that no one else in the department was to speak to her.  When the boss was in, no one spoke to her.  When the boss was out, people were friendly in a noncommittal way.  Sounds extreme but it happens more than you might think and it’s cruel.

Twenty-six (as of September 2014) states have considered anti-bullying legislation aimed at these extreme victimizing cases.  Public sympathy will be with the victim not the company.

Finally, it just isn’t right.  I really don’t care how important the knowledge or expertise of the offending supervisor. No one is irreplaceable least of all someone who abuses others.  He/she causes human suffering and work disruption that is frankly indefensible. Combining this with the risk of lawsuits should help to convince an owner to do something to address the offending behavior.

I was once asked by an owner to implement a “performance counseling” for something innocuous with an employee the owner had previously targeted. I was able to dodge this issue for a while but in the end, had to leave the position. The owner became more insistent and my eyes were opened to his/her unethical approaches as the rule for this owner, rather than the exception.

The guiding principles to help you demonstrate the problem might be:

  • Company sustainability;
  • Fairness, respect and lawfulness;
  • Employee health and well-being;
  • The rights of all employees; and
  • Loss prevention
Good luck and feel free to call for a free consultation: Contact me.
Contact the author with questions or comments.
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  1. Pingback: Leadership Thought #209 – 15 Things Employers and Employees Can Take To Make Work More Enjoyable « Ed Robinson's Blog

  2. This is a nice posting. Unfortunately, the sources for workplace distress are more numerous. I’m referring here to employee disputes, due to factors like competition, power ploys, and reinforcement of some humiliating practices used on recent employees.
    When a team has lots of power disputes, productivity drops, and if jobs are plentiful, best people consider leaving as their best option. The cost of organizational conflict, as described by Dan Dana, is very high. Certain companies can use from relationship trainings to managerial mediation of employee disputes, and according to company size, from designing a system to channel employee complaints, to the big companies’ use of an ombudsman. All conflict resolutions options listed are telling employees: we care about a clean, respectful environment for everybody to work in; we will support it and give each one the skills necessary to feel respected and valued.
    Of course, not all workplace conflicts can be avoided, (issues of employee mental health are very real) but having a system to process them installed beforehand helps save time and aggravation.

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