Sensitive employees problems or issues might be uncomfortable territory for a manager to deal with. They may also have related legal obligations. Here’s one issue and advice for how to address it.

How do you handle it when an employee’s performance declines rapidly? Or when you see behavior or personality changes at work that are affecting performance? You may suspect a sensitive issue or a personal problem that would be uncomfortable to address. Sonja Anderson of employment law firm Littler answers just such a problem in her response to the query: How Should We Approach an Employee Showing Signs of Cognitive Decline? 

Anderson says don’t jump  to conclusions or ask the employee potentially illegal medical questions. She makes the point that you really do not know the cause for the declining performance:

“The employee’s decreased productivity could indeed be due to the onset of dementia, Alzheimer’s, or some other cognitive impairment. Or, these symptoms could be caused by illegal or legal drug use—even as an unfortunate side effect of a prescription medication. Your employee might also be suffering from depression or another physical or mental condition, such as sleep apnea. He may be dealing with some unknown stress in his personal life, including difficulty with caregiving for a family member or bouncing back after a loss. He might even be tired and distracted from moonlighting.”

Rather, she says to keep the focus on addressing existing performance problems and stick to what is knowable by observation: the employees performance is declining. She suggests initiating “a conversation about performance issues and see whether he offers an explanation that invites accommodation or some other mutually-agreeable solution.”

This is great advice. Even though this particular example is a health-related issue, this advice is a template for virtually any performance issue that you think might be driven by an underlying problem.

We’d like to suggest that such a juncture is an ideal time for a referral to your organization’s EAP. Managers have a unique vantage for observing sudden changes in behavior or personality as evidenced by a decline in work performance. As Anderson’s examples show, this can often signify an underlying problem that is not related to physical or mental health – it can be related to grief, debt, divorce, domestic abuse, child or eldercare problems, or any of a number of life problems that may benefit by help. It is not a manager’s job to be a counselor, to try to diagnose the problem or to find the reason for the behavior changes. Instead, managers should be trained in how to make referrals to an organization’s EAP  as a plan to address performance issues when a manager suspects an underlying problem. The EAP can address the performance issues and can assist in determining any underlying cause in a confidential setting, while offering access to any professional assistance that may be needed. Work performance can be a great leverage for people who might otherwise be reluctant to seek help for a problem.

Anderson’s article goes on to discuss more specifics about staying within the law as it relates to medical issues, offering guidance on what types of queries you can and cannot make as an employer in compliance with ADA – a good overview. In particular, she discusses exceptions to the rule of not inquiring about medical issues, specifically, when disability-related inquiries are allowed, if “job-related and consistent with business necessity.” She also talks about FMLA obligations that might be triggered by a conversation about medical or health issues.


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