HR Administration

Part 4: Leading People Through Disasters

By Kathryn D. McKee, Liz Guthridge

Jun. 2, 2006

In their book Leading People Through Disasters: An Action Guide Preparing for and Dealing With the Human Side of Crises, authors Kathryn D. McKee, SPHR, and Liz Guthridge lay out a step-by-step blueprint to help HR professionals deal with the effect of disasters on their workforces.

Workforce Management is pleased to provide you with four excerpts from McKee and Guthridge’s book, which is published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Book Excerpt
Part 4 – Leading People Through Disasters
An Action Guide: Preparing for and Dealing With the Human Side of Crises

Turning on Managerial Radar
Everyone, especially managers and those in HR, should be extra sensitive to the needs and problems of employees. Managers should be aware of unusual behavioral trends or problems developing in your department. If you spot a problem, immediately refer the person to a trained professional who can help with the identification of the problem and then work to solve it. This can be a resource in HR or an employee assistance program resource.

If you’re a manager, you need to work with the human resources staff and the EAP counselor (if you have elected to use that service) to determine whether it would be best to put the employee on a short–e.g., one-month–leave of absence to give the individual time for counseling and recovery. Upon the employee’s return, sit down together and work out performance expectations that are reasonable and fair both to the employee and to the employer.

Specific steps if performance declines
Managers and supervisors need to take some specific steps if an employee’s performance begins to decline.

   You should:

  • Intervene quickly if performance begins to decline, referring employees to support professionals such HR staff, the EAP or other behavioral health professionals available to you.
  • Refer employees to a professional at every step in the problem-solving process, including verbal warnings, written warning and probation, and document these offers of assistance. (This is different from the normal progressive disciplinary process in that you are offering behavioral health assistance along the way.)
  • Follow up to ensure that employees have met with support professionals.
  • Ensure that you or HR staff members are advised about employee relations issues. Ensure that managers document signs of performance decline and referrals they have made and send a copy to HR.

Rationale for special documentation
Documentation is essential to support the problem-solving process and respond to litigation or workers’ compensation claims. When documenting, the information must be accurate, factual and consistent. Record specific behavior. For example: “Employee missed meeting on 6/15/06 without giving a reason”; “I detected alcohol on employee’s breath 7/23/06”; “Employee arrived 40 minutes late for work on 8/20/06 with no explanation.” Also include information about referrals, such as “I recommended getting counseling through the EAP.”

When documenting behavior, do not refer to hearsay and don’t judge and/or diagnose an employee’s actions. Contact the behavioral health resource with your performance documentation. While this approach is always important, it becomes essential if the employee denies having a problem. Refer to the “Do’s and Don’ts” at the end of this chapter before completing the documentation.

Signs of performance problems
    The behavioral problems listed below are warning signals that managers need to confront and document:

    Absenteeism, including:

  • Unauthorized leave.
  • Excessive sick leave.
  • Monday absences, Friday absences, or Monday and Friday absences (could be related to increased alcohol or drug usage).
  • Repeated absences of two to four days
  • More than one absence of one to two weeks (five to 10 days).
  • Excessive tardiness, especially on Monday mornings or when returning from lunch (again, may be substance abuse).
  • Often leaving work early.
  • Peculiar and increasingly improbable excuses for absences.
  • Higher absenteeism rate than other employees for colds, flu, gastritis and so forth (and consequently more claims on health insurance).

    “On-the-job absenteeism,” for example:

  • Is continually absent from workstation more than the job requires.
  • Makes frequent trips to water fountain or bathroom.
  • Takes long coffee breaks.
  • Is physically ill on job.
  • High accident rate, including:
    Accidents on the job.
    Frequent trips to nurse’s office.
    Accidents off the job but affecting job performance.
  • Difficulty concentrating, for example:
    Work seems to require a greater effort.
    Jobs take more time.
    Hand tremor occurs when concentrating.
  • Confusion, for example:
    Has difficulty in recalling instructions and details of work assignments.
    Has increasing difficulty in dealing with complex assignments.
    Has difficulty recalling own mistakes.
    Spasmodic work patterns; for instance, alternate periods of very high and low productivity.
  • Inflexibility—does not change easily. Your requests for change may present a threat because the employee’s control of his or her present job duties and responsibilities allows him or her to hide low job performance. The inability to make routine changes could also indicate a high tension level or another serious problem.

    Coming or returning to work in an obviously atypical condition, which may indicate a substance abuse problem.
Generally lowered job efficiency, for example:

  • Misses deadlines.
  • Makes mistakes due to inattention or poor judgment.
  • Wastes more material.
  • Makes bad decisions.
  • Receives complaints from customers.
  • Has improbable excuses for poor job performance.
  • Poor personal relationships on the job.
  • Friction in employee relationships, usually resulting in decreased job performance and efficiency.

    Possible alcoholism or drug addition, as indicated by the following behavior:

  • Overreacts to real or imagined criticism.
  • Exhibits wide swings in morale.
  • Borrows money from co-workers.
  • Compiles complaints from co-workers.
  • Has unreasonable resentments.
  • Begins to avoid associates.

Guidelines for a meeting with an employee who is having trouble
Meeting with an employee face-to-face to discuss a problem is never an easy task. You may be tempted to put off confronting someone who is troubled. Or you will meet with the person but hesitate to recommend counseling. Despite the initial reaction, an employee who is in trouble usually knows it and is often relieved to have the problem out in the open so it can be dealt with.

If you notice any of the above behaviors, or your employee’s performance is declining, intervene quickly to determine the key issue(s).

Meet with your employee in his or her workstation or office if privacy is adequate. Come prepared with a clear sense of the job criteria and the facts that you wish to address. For example, in the case of excessive absenteeism, have the dates in front of you. You might begin by saying, “I’ve been concerned about you lately. I’ve noticed you missed work on June 10, 11 and 18, and you’re missing department deadlines. You just haven’t been your usual self.”

Focus on specific job performance issues or behavior, not on vague personality or attitude problems, which can easily be denied. Indicate the effect that the worker’s problem is having on you, the workload, and the other workers in your unit.

Hold an unhurried discussion and maintain sensitivity to the employee’s feelings and needs. The manner in which you address your employee in this first meeting will be critical in reducing defensiveness and creating a comfortable environment for communication.

Listen carefully to what the employee says. Be empathetic. Avoid minimizing what he or she is feeling or saying. Your tone should be calm, supportive and positive. Continue to gently ask questions and listen until you understand fully the nature of the problem, including how it may relate to the disaster that recently occurred.

Be careful not to over-emotionalize what is said. Communicate the facts and discuss the issues. Do not diagnose the problem; ask the employee to make an appointment with employee assistance or other behavioral health providers, or offer to schedule an appointment for him or her.

Continue to be supportive but firm in the message that his or her performance must return to a satisfactory level. Remain calm and firm, always bringing the conversation back to specific on-the-job problems, despite your employee’s excuses, defensiveness or hostility.

Avoid any diagnosis or labeling of the employee’s problem. Stress that whatever the trouble is, it is the employee’s responsibility to do whatever is necessary—for instance, by using a behavioral health provider—to perform adequately.

If the problem is personal–for example, family problems, alcohol or drug abuse, stress or financial worries either directly or indirectly brought on by the disaster–be particularly sensitive and respectful of the employee’s feelings. It is difficult for anyone except a professional counselor to assist in these situations. Reassure your employee that the company wants to help through the EAP or other resource.

Keep an open door and follow up to ensure that the employee meets with a trained counselor, such as the EAP.

Emphasize exactly what you expect in order to resolve the problem. Be sure that the employee understands, then get a commitment and monitor it.

Set a definite date—a month from now, perhaps—for your next meeting, at which time you expect marked improvement.

End the interview on a positive note, with your expectation that given the resources available, the employee will start to deal with the problem and work productivity will improve.

Do’s and don’ts in the interview


  • Focus solely on declining job performance and the offer to help.
  • Have on hand written documentation for the declining job performance, so you can let the record speak for itself.
  • Maintain a firm and formal, yet considerate, attitude. If the interview becomes a casual or intimate conversation, the impact of the message will be lessened.
  • Explain that help is available through the EAP.
  • Emphasize that all aspects of the program are completely confidential.
  • State that the employee’s decision will be considered in re-evaluating his or her performance at a later date.


  • Try to find out what is wrong with the employee.
  • Allow yourself to get involved in the employee’s personal life.
  • Make generalizations or insinuations about the employee’s performance.
  • Moralize. Restrict your criticism to job performance.
  • Be misled by sympathy-evoking tactics. Stay focused on your right to expect appropriate behavior and satisfactory job performance.
  • Threaten discipline unless you are willing and able to carry out the threat.

If you have asked your employee to make an appointment with the EAP or a behavioral health provider, contact the provider to advise them that you have referred this person. Confidentiality will always be maintained between them and the employee, but the provider can tell you when your employee has met with them and whether he or she is cooperating.

First corrective interview
If the employee’s performance continues to deteriorate, conduct another interview and take whatever step in disciplinary action is warranted. Inform the employee that failure to improve job performance will result in further disciplinary action up to and including termination. Conclude with a strong recommendation that the individual use the services of the EAP.

Second corrective interview
If deterioration of performance continues, conduct a second corrective interview. Conclude by offering the employee the choice between accepting the services of the EAP or being terminated because of unsatisfactory job performance.

If after the three steps described above the employee does not or will not perform to the position’s job performance standards, he or she should be terminated.

Remember, the goal is to balance business continuity with the needs of all employees. If employees in a work group can’t count on a co-worker to perform, that hurts everyone’s performance, and creates even more tension when nerves can still be raw from the disaster.

Action steps
Design your own approach to training managers in advance on:

  • Dealing with traumatized employees.
  • Recognizing the symptoms.
  • Referring for help or putting employee on leave.
  • Conducting special performance interviews.
  • Providing warnings.
  • Terminating employees.

Consider a brief manager’s guide for dealing with traumatized employees that managers can keep with their other business continuity planning materials that you will provide them.

Plan for a quick refresher course with managers if you do experience a disaster.

Please see: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

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