Emotions can run high in today’s workplace. And those intense feelings carry some serious consequences.
Take, for instance, the saga of Duane Thomas Marine Construction in Marco Island, FL. Howard Mavity of Fisher & Phillips recently wrote about an employee of the marine contractor who said the owner — that would be the aforementioned Duane Thomas — committed workplace violence and created hostile working conditions.
Thomas allegedly behaved abusively, made inappropriate sexual comments and advances, yelled, screamed and made physically threatening gestures, in addition to withholding the employee’s paycheck.
The employee, who worked directly for Thomas, complained directly to Thomas about his behavior. Those protests apparently fell on deaf ears.
Finally, the employee filed a whistleblower complaint with the Department of Labor. The owner wasn’t pleased — when he received notice of the complaint, he fired the employee.
Hot temper could be expensive
The employee’s claim was investigated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is charged with handling these types of whistleblower cases, and OSHA found that the complaint had merit. The result: a lawsuit against the company filed in federal district court.
And OSHA’s asking for some serious reparations for the owner’s actions. The suit seeks back wages, interest, and compensatory and punitive damages, as well as front pay in lieu of reinstatement. Additionally, it seeks to have the employee’s personnel record wiped clean of any documentation of the incident.
What’s the take-home here? Supervisors need to be able to control their emotions. Long gone are the days when employees would just shrug their shoulders and think, “Well, he’s the boss and he can do what he wants.”
‘There’s no crying at work’: Wrong
The marine contractor case is an example of manager emotions gone awry. But what happens when employee emotions go over the top?
We’re not talking about volcanic explosions of anger, but the other end of the spectrum: employees crying at work.
Amy Gallo, writing on the Harvard Business Review blog, points out that people spend so much time at work these days — and are so worried about keeping their jobs — that it’s inevitable that at some point, there will be tears in the workplace.
They’re not always work-related, of course. Personal issues — marital problems, care of aging relatives, money — can’t help but make a dent in a person’s work performance.
And many managers are acutely uncomfortable with dealing with emotional issues. “People think to be professional, you need to ignore your emotions and those of the people around you,” Gallo quotes Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, an associate professor of management and organization at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. But “we don’t leave our humanity at the office door,” Sanchez-Burks says.
So how best to handle a weeping employee? Here’s a summary of Gallo’s advice:
- Act like yourself. When a manager’s faced with a weeping employee, his/her first instinct should be to help. Sanchez-Burks advises approaching the person as if he’s someone in your social network outside of work.
What the supervisor does — offer a tissue, ask what’s wrong, give a hug, suggest a walk outside — will depend on the relationship, how long the two have worked together and the office culture. The key is to engage and let the tears flow.
- Figure out what’s really going on. Sometimes even when the reasons for the tears seem clear, they might not be. An employee might start sobbing in a review conversation, but she’s really upset about her mother being sick. Managers should be able to gently ask questions that get at the underlying issue.
Try saying, “What’s going on?” or “Is there anything else you want to tell me?”
- Keep it simple. If it’s revealed that the problem is a personal one, managers should stick to simple and comforting responses — “I’m sorry” or “This is a horrible situation.” Don’t tell him that everything’s going to be OK or imply that he should buck up. And supervisors need to resist the temptation to tell a story of their own.
- Focus on work-related concerns. If an office issue prompted the crying, managers should work with the employee, and colleagues if necessary, to address it. If it’s a personal problem, the supervisor can also help the employee make a plan.
Possible approaches: “This is rough. Let me know what would be most helpful to you and we’ll see if we can make that happen.” Other tactics: Reducing the employee’s workload temporarily, and checking in regularly to monitor the situation. In the most extreme cases, it might be appropriate to suggest a leave of absence.
- Don’t play psychiatrist. There may be some situations that managers just aren’t equipped to handle: mental illness or substance abuse, for example. In these cases, or in any situation managers aren’t comfortable addressing, the best practice is to refer the person to HR or an employee assistance program (EAP).