Employees Seek Pastoral Advice. How Do You Answer

By Nancy Breuer

Apr. 1, 1997

Yes, I know my work hasn’t been up to my usual standards. But I’m having a very hard time concentrating. The truth is that … well, you’ve heard about that gang activity in town lately, the drug dealing? I hate to say this, but I think my child may be involved, and I can’t decide whether to turn her in. What do you think I should do?

If you heard an explanation of diminished job performance like this from an employee, what would you do? You know there’s a work-related problem in there somewhere, but the employee has framed it as an urgent moral issue requiring spiritual guidance or pastoral care, rather than management intervention. What’s more, the employee has confided private family business to you, even though as an employer you have no real need to know. And to top it off, the employee wants your help in solving the problem.

You’re at a crossroads: How do you determine whether this is a concern a human resources person should get involved in helping solve? Is this a situation in which an HR professional should give direct advice, refer the employee to someone else (like a spiritual adviser) or tell the employee it’s his or her own problem and must seek out his or her own resources?

More and more, employee problems that seem to cross the lines between the spiritual, the personal and the professional are knocking at HR’s door. In a more secular age, in a more diverse workplace, HR professionals face complex personal issues far more often than before the recent waves of downsizing increased the long, intense hours at work among the “survivors.” The line between employees’ professional and personal lives has blurred—and HR seems to be caught in the middle. And HR professionals are wondering: Why are these problems coming to us? Are they problems we should be solving? Or are they employees’ responsibilities? Where should we draw the line between being a spiritual counselor, a benevolent paternal figure and a work facilitator? It’s a complex problem requiring various strategies in different cases. Understanding why it’s even an HR issue is the first step in identifying, understanding and solving the problem.

What’s the source of the problem?
As Lisa Carp, director of human resources for Talbot Agencies Inc. in Riverside, California says: “The number of people having problems has escalated. Job loss, single-parent families, taking care of elderly parents, drug abuse—they’re all increasing. ‘Leave it at home’ is the old school of thought, and it doesn’t work now.”

Indeed, according to some experienced human resources professionals, more problems are now coming to the HR department that, in the past, employees might have taken to a minister, priest, rabbi or imam (a Muslim spiritual leader). Why? There are many reasons. In a post-downsizing environment, many employees now live their lives in only two places: home and the workplace. Time they once spent in community activities has been consumed by work demands. Sometimes people in a work group can behave like sequestered jurors, making the workplace their whole world.

Fran Sussner Rodgers’ experience as CEO of Work/Family Directions in Boston—which helps employers maximize employee health and performance by eliminating the barriers workers face managing work and life responsibilities—has shown her that for many, the workplace has become like a close neighborhood or the support system that extended families once provided. As the workplace absorbs more roles in employees’ lives, including becoming the primary source of affiliations and friendships, it carries the pressure of those roles.

A woman was in tears because someone had affirmed her worth at 19 cents more an hour.
—Ted Karpf, National Episcopal AIDS Coalition

Rodgers believes another factor contributing to a dependency on the workplace to solve personal problems is the diversity of the working population. “What the men [who represented the workplace of previous generations] brought to work when they were from similar backgrounds was different from what we have today. Diverse populations have different issues that they consider related to work, such as dealing with family situations at the workplace. Even 10 years ago, that would have seemed odd. Now there are a greater variety of things that people see as related to getting the job done.”

One example Rodgers states is how people from different backgrounds respond to reengineering of the workplace, a process HR usually manages. There are cultures in which the shame or the fear of losing one’s job prevents the person from talking about it at home, yet those feelings can certainly have an impact on job performance. Is that a work-related issue? A private, family issue? A cultural issue? Or is it really all three? If we’re out of touch, Rodgers insists, we tend to think of some single norm as the expected response to reengineering.

Work validates people’s lives.
Still another factor affecting the rise in workplace support of personal issues is that a growing number of people receive their full self-worth from their jobs. As a priest who has been a manager in a secular workplace, the Rev. Ted Karpf sees more people now developing a more intense relationship to the workplace. He worries that how people feel valued at work can become their whole sense of self-worth. Karpf has seen this trend increasing the complexity of the HR professional’s role. Before his current work as executive director of the National Episcopal AIDS Coalition in Washington, D.C., he managed a group at Aspen Systems Corp. which fulfilled Aspen’s contract with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Business Responds to AIDS” program. “Invariably, if you saw low performance, you were looking at a whole complex of family issues as well. We had no employee assistance program. The health plan allowed for six counseling visits only, so managers and supervisors ended up doing counseling. Outside business hours, I ended up sitting and listening, asking the appropriate questions.”

Karpf says he believes that in most workplaces, “The only HR professionals whose work experience prepared them for dealing with the range of employees’ problems are benefits specialists, who can spot certain kinds of dysfunctions faster than anyone. They know how many times you’ve seen the doctor lately; they know how often your family members have been hospitalized.” Many benefits specialists spend more time with the employee than anyone else does in the workplace, explaining benefits and hearing about the employee’s problem in the course of that conversation.

When employees draw most of their identity from the workplace, the distinction between job-related issues and pastoral issues blur, not coincidentally, but because of the intense workplace focus. Karpf recalls a data processor in her late 50s who worked at Aspen. Although she didn’t report to Karpf, she approached him one day in tears, explaining that she tried hard to be valuable to her employer but didn’t feel valued. Under Karpf’s questioning, she explained that she had been promised a wage increase eight months previously, but the increase—from $7.40 an hour to $7.59 an hour—had yet to appear in her paycheck. Karpf asked about her situation in the next management meeting and found that she was one of eight people who hadn’t yet received a promised increase. When her next paycheck reflected the new hourly rate, she came to Karpf in tears again, saying, “Thank you for valuing my work.” Karpf explains, “For the first time, I understood what the American workforce is up against. I have worked much of my life in the church. Much of what I get paid for is intangible. I had never had the value of my life reduced to 19 cents an hour. This woman was in tears because someone had affirmed her worth at 19 cents more an hour.” Karpf saw that in this data processor’s eyes, her employer had become the key arbiter of her worth; this wasn’t just a paperwork hassle to her. As employees invest so much time and draw so much of their sense of worth from work, Karpf believes that HR professionals will confront more pastoral issues, not fewer.

Start with a “customer-driven HR” strategy.
Talbot Agencies’ Carp says that today, employees need to know they can come in and talk to HR about personal issues that may be affecting their work, that HR is a good place to blow off steam. “I keep books they can read. When I counsel employees, I try to get past the symptom that brought them in and get to the problem so that we don’t lose them,” says Carp.

In her previous position as HR director for Bird Medical Technologies in Palm Springs, California, Carp referred employees to the company’s EAP and worked to retain them. “If we did lose an employee, at least we knew we did our best. If we let the person go, we allowed a continuing relationship with the EAP. Every case was dealt with individually.” Carp says it’s more important than ever today to provide a support system for employees so they can do their jobs better.

Jan Iannessa, vice president for corporate HR at Universal Studios in Universal City, California, agrees: “We need to provide some support simply because the workplace has changed so much. Not responding can cost us a lot in lost productivity.” But does the company’s response sometimes create confusion about entitlement? Will an employee who receives help from an employer in solving a personal problem that affects the job feel that the job belongs to him or her no matter what? For some, it does, says Iannessa. “I see a sense of entitlement mostly when employees don’t take responsibility for getting to work on time or doing their jobs effectively. For some, once they’re hired, they feel entitled to their jobs. If they’re challenged, it’s not their fault; it must be their manager’s fault. Someone doesn’t like them.” Jackie Kittaka, senior vice president and director of HR for First Federal Bank of California in Santa Monica, says she believes “[employees] are confused between entitlement, a word we use loosely, and laws or regulations. There needs to be some clarity to employees, and communicating that is the responsibility of the employer. For example, employees need to know they have a right to overtime pay if they work a certain number of hours, but they don’t have a right to be promoted.”

Rodgers, in contrast, emphatically doesn’t see an increase in employees’ sense of entitlement; she sees a decrease. People are aware that they’re lucky to have a job, she explains. What’s being called a growing sense of entitlement is actually employees trying to tell the employer what they need to be productive, Rodgers insists. “It’s customer-driven HR: it’s HR’s job to figure out what people need to get the work done; and if they tell you, it’s not fair to call that a sense of entitlement.” Rodgers hears many pleas for work to be different so that employees can perform optimally. She explains, “Big companies have changed in what they say they can guarantee the employee. When they change the rules, they have to do three things: adapt to the changing labor force, provide services to employees to help them manage the transition, and invest corporate dollars in community-based organizations that provide support services such as child care and adult day care.”

These issues may sound pastoral, they may even sound like entitlement, but Rodgers insists that if HR can’t figure this one out, “Then they may as well stay with downsizing and administrative work. Human resources work is about motivation, figuring out how to meet people’s needs so that they can free up that motivation.”

HR needs to look for red flags.
After 20 years in the field, Lark Baskerville believes that employees have brought a full range of human concerns to HR professionals for a long time, but not to the extent that she sees now. As vice president/director of HR for Rubin Postaer and Associates, a Santa Monica, California, advertising agency, Baskerville is convinced that someone new to the field would need professional HR mentoring to establish a sense of when to deal directly with the problem and when to refer it to other resources. She offers practical advice to HR professionals by identifying several “red flags” in employee behavior that can alert a manager or a human resources person to problems that are best solved by resources outside the company.

Here’s one scenario: The employee seems depressed, even desperate. The employee tells you that you’re the only person she or he can tell. If it’s a business issue, that may be true, Baskerville notes. If it’s a personal issue, she recommends suggesting a relative, a best friend or a counselor.

In addition, if an employee’s absenteeism has increased, Baskerville suggests this is a major red flag, a behavior that’s certain to have consequences in the employee’s performance.

Kittaka adds to the red-flag list: When the employee shows evidence of being a danger to self, co-workers or others.

Obviously, if an employee isn’t functioning properly, there could be a variety of reasons why. Red-flag behavior should be a signal for the person’s manager or HR that someone should investigate further—without invading the employee’s privacy—and be helpful where indicated. After all, employees are investments. Just as a company would try to get to the heart of a machinery failure problem, it should also view employee failure in the same light. It often just takes a lot more finesse to diagnose and solve the problem.

What HR can do.
To the question of how an HR professional learns to do this, Carp has two guidelines: the Golden Rule and a mentoring system. Consider this dilemma: “Yes, I know my work has been falling, but it’s hard to work at maximum performance in the middle of this awful divorce. My life is a wreck. My kids need better child care and I can’t find it. I just can’t cope anymore. I guess I’m going to have to quit my job.”

Carp treated this employee the way she would want to be treated herself in that situation: She helped the employee restate the problem in manageable terms, then negotiated a one-week leave so that the employee could find better child-care arrangements. It worked. The employee’s sense of despair evaporated when she had the time and encouragement to find a solution to a problem that affected both her personal life and her work life. Carp managed the “pastoral” issue by helping the employee restate the problem so it was less overwhelming and by providing her adequate time to resolve it.

Such pastoral issues can overwhelm the inexperienced human resources person. When a new HR professional in Carp’s department found herself becoming deeply involved in employees’ personal problems, Carp provided her with an experienced mentor. According to Carp, preparation for this kind of decision making isn’t part of the curriculum in programs that prepare HR professionals; it has to be learned on the job.

We need to provide some support because the workplace has changed so much. Not responding can cost us a lot.
Jan Iannessa, Universal Studios

Is it personal? Or is it professional?
Universal Studio’s Iannessa says she acquired some of her skills in figuring out what’s personal and what’s professional when she worked with hearing-impaired children. “You need to get all your senses working. You need to have developed your ‘sixth sense,’ that sense you’ll use in recruiting, hiring and in all the HR functions.” Iannessa defines the skill as learning to separate the emotional issues from the professional issues. “We always operate between the employee and the corporation, so people don’t always tell us right away what’s wrong. We need to have our sixth sense out there. Suppose an employee comes in complaining of being picked on at work, claiming that life is miserable. Something else is going on here, something the employee isn’t revealing. Being totally empathetic often isn’t the helpful response.”

What will be helpful to the employee and help the company maximize its investment in the person? First, focus on performance issues. Second, identify the appropriate referral for the personal issues that are affecting performance. Third, limit the time the employee has to improve the situation. Iannessa explains, “Until there’s a threat to their jobs, people often don’t get the help they need. We need to tell their managers, ‘Look at the job performance.’ [If there are problems,] then we find referrals for the personal issues. In the entertainment industry, that referral is EIRAC [Entertainment Industry Referral and Assistance Center], the industry’s own EAP.”

To illustrate the problem further, Iannessa talks about another recent job experience where the line separating personal and professional issues blurred completely for a while when there was a shooting incident at her company’s office building. Knowing that dealing with such strong emotions among the employees was beyond her professional expertise, she contacted a counselor who specializes in “post-traumatic stress disorder” and set up a crisis-intervention group meeting the next day. She scheduled times with the EIRAC counselors for a week and didn’t stop offering the sessions until people stopped coming.

Even after that experience, she explains, she has reached the point at which she understands the need for a daily balancing act between employees’ personal and professional issues as “part of the cost of doing business.” She adds: “You’re dealing with these kinds of significant things in people’s lives every day if you’re out there where you should be.” Iannessa believes that in the current business climate, it’s easier for employees to come forward than it once was. “Companies now are offering enough alternatives, whether it’s access to an EAP, to an employee-relations person or another resource. Both parents now often work; the number of single-parent families is increasing; we’re seeing women trying to deal with ‘having it all.’ Companies, in response, understand that these are productivity issues.”

Dealing with pastoral issues: guidelines for HR.
Beyond responding to these pastoral issues with the finely-honed sixth sense that Iannessa describes, there are guidelines that human resources professionals can use in dealing with them. These suggestions—from experienced HR professionals—may help you navigate the storm of employee problems for which they may ask for help:

  • Encourage employees to build networks at the workplace to replace what used to be available in other places in their lives.
  • Accept that for some people, there is a greater level of community and intimacy at the workplace than in any other place in their lives. Respond to their problems and complaints accordingly.
  • Be a sounding board: Acknowledge feelings and act as a listener, but don’t try to solve a pastoral problem. Refer.
  • Learn your limitations. Learn to say that the person needs more help than you or the company can offer. Once again, refer. (Even pastors must learn to do this when they confront problems outside their training.)
  • Develop a file or a database of referrals that includes well-regarded spiritual leaders or organizations in the faiths represented among your employees. Under duress, an employee who hasn’t been active in his or her faith of choice since childhood may derive great benefit from reconnecting with one’s spiritual roots.
  • Present employees with alternatives (or pros and cons), then encourage them to make their own decisions.
  • Drop the phrase, “Deal with that on your own time,” from your vocabulary. Replace it with a referral from your well-developed collection of community resources.

No one’s predicting that this “pastoral” role of the HR professional will diminish in the near future. Employees who lack other deep roots in the community are likely to continue bringing to HR professionals problems that call for a pastoral response. But the well-prepared professional can avoid the pitfalls of this pastoral role and handle its responsibilities with skill and grace.

Workforce, April 1997, Vol. 76, No. 4, pp. 44-51.

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