When Life Gets in the Way: Leading Employees Through Tough Times

When Life Gets in the Way: Leading Employees Through Tough Times

As a supervisor, you understand the impact of unforeseen job-related circumstances that can completely hijack a well-planned day. Broken equipment, shifts in project scope, or delays in receiving critical materials are a few examples of what you could face at any given time. For each of these situations, you control what you can, accept what you can’t, and try to influence or have an impact on everything else. You make necessary adjustments and press forward with a new and revised strategy considering factors involved and countermeasures at your disposal.

While circumstances involving the job are likely to impact you from time to time, the skills required to adjust and effectively respond are usually technical in nature. Those skills, however, won’t prepare you for the unforeseen circumstances involving a variety of life events your employees will occasionally experience, or for how you will respond when they happen.

Helping employees through difficult moments in their lives is one of the most compassionate things you can do as a supervisor. While we may never find comfort in dealing with these types of situations, we can and should prepare ourselves to offer aid and assistance should the need arise. The resources required are likely available and, in many instances, your assistance in connecting them to those resources may be all that’s needed. Regardless, thinking through the process now and having a plan in place for how you will respond is an important step.


Let Them Talk
Life events are typically emotional in nature and deeply important to those directly involved. Circumstances might include the death of a family member or loved one, separation from a spouse, or behaviors/dependencies involving children – just to name a few. Regardless of what the situation entails, your first duty as a supervisor is to listen.

Assuming an employee elects to discuss the matter with you, know that they may simply need to be heard and are likely looking for an outlet to do so. From your perspective, there are three critical objectives associated with your involvement at this point, none of which include resolving the issues the employee is facing. Those objectives are:

  1. acknowledge the situation,
  2. express your concern, and
  3. offer assistance in finding additional resources that might be able to help, provided additional support is needed and desired.


1. Acknowledge the Situation
To effectively acknowledge the situation requires that you accurately reflect the sincerity of the circumstances involved. It’s far more about what you might do than what you might say. Giving the employee your full attention, stepping from behind your desk to a table where you can both sit, or pulling the employee off the job to talk in private are all ways to acknowledge the situation. In addition, you should do whatever is within your scope of authority to minimize unnecessary disruptions, conveying a genuine and sincere sense of caring for the employee and concern for their well-being.


2. Express your Concern
Expressing concern is an act of caring. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness. As a supervisor, you may simply say:

I’m sorry you are dealing with this. I know it’s not easy”, or

I can only imagine how difficult this is for you and recognize the courage it took to say something to me.

At this point, you want to do everything possible to avoid placing blame or saying anything that might cause the employee to reflect on things they might or could have done differently. Let them know you are there to listen and have their best interest in mind.


3. Offer Assistance
As a supervisor, you are likely not trained in grief counseling and probably aren’t the most appropriate person to discuss company benefits for unfortunate life events. You are, however, in a perfect position to point the employee in the direction of how to take advantage of them, provided you’re familiar with what’s available. Learning about the various resources available, within your company and even through local churches, civic groups, and government agencies, is time well spent before the need arises.


Preparing for life events involving your employees and the role you may need to fulfill as a supervisor is never easy. It is necessary and important, however. Given your position within the organization, you likely will be the first to know when something happens and will be the first point of contact for employees who may be experiencing the resulting emotional pain and discomfort. Do your part and prepare for how you might handle the situation before the need arises. Sometimes life does get in the way and having the people skills needed to deal with it when it does will benefit all involved.

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