Compassion and the HR Professional

It happens to all of us in HR at some point in our lives.  We find ourselves caught in an awkward position at work and we ask ourselves, “What is the best response here?”

I am talking about situations where compassion is needed, but with extenuating circumstances.  You’ve encountered the scenario before.  An employee confides something deeply personal:

  • A health issue
  • A break-up
  • Bankruptcy
  • An unexpected pregnancy

She is coming to you not really as a friend, but as someone who she thinks can help her.  She wants:

  • Advice
  • A break
  • Support
  • Shelter

She doesn’t know or understand the awkward position this possibly puts you in.  The information she provides may or may not be true.  You know that:

  • Her supervisor is at his wits end because her performance is so poor
  • She was late again three times this week
  • The organization doesn’t have a warm and fuzzy culture with flexibility
  • There are impending layoffs and her employment is at risk

What are your responsibilities in this situation?  How involved should you be?  How do you protect company interests while being a human being?

Human resources practitioners are not registered psychologists or social workers.  We are not “Mother Theresa”.  For most of us, our employers do not want or expect us to be advocates for the downtrodden, but we are expected to be kind, helpful and looking for the win-win.  We do not have a magic wand.  Therefore suffice to say that there are no clear cut answers about the level of compassion we need to provide in these tough situations, only possible approaches.

Here are some things you can do:

  1. To the extent possible, help her find professional help.  Does your benefit plan offer an EAP?  Are there help lines or government services available?  Is counseling a covered benefit?  Keep abreast of the resources available to a person in need and share them freely.  Short lists are better than single resources.  Encourage her to make the call.  That way, you don’t have to give advice or get overly involved.
  2. Are there small things you can do?  Can she borrow your office for 20 minutes to get her composure or to make a private call?  Is there some small token you have that you can give to her to show her that you and the Company care?
  3. Be clear about what you can and can’t keep confidential and your channel of communication within the organization.  For most employees, the role of HR is unclear, which in many cases leads to the risk that an employee won’t come and see us out of fear or mistrust, even when it is prudent that they do so.
  4. Encourage her to be discrete about whom she confides in about the circumstances.  The workplace is full of people who are your frenemies.  Your Company has policies regarding fair treatment but you can’t control everything.   While it has become commonplace for stars to rise out of their personal meltdowns, it is more difficult for the rest of us to do so.   Also a privately-managed issue will likely result in less workplace disruption.
  5. Be clear about the conundrum created when personal information like this is shared with someone in HR.  Ask for clarity on the reasons she came to you and what she expects your involvement to be. Be clear about what you can and can’t do for her.
  6. With regards to how the personal situation impacts her job, encourage her to speak with her Supervisor and to be open to possible solutions.  Offer to open the discussion with the Supervisor if you feel there may be a risk that the Supervisor may not handle the situation in a manner appropriate to the circumstances.  If it is possible, try to create clarity about the continuing performance expectations and work through strategies to address them.  Try to keep to as much of a third-party approach as possible.
  7. Get legal advice as needed.  There are a myriad of potential challenges that could present themselves if down the line she is terminated. It could be construed that you used the knowledge gained in the circumstances inappropriately with undesirable consequences.

Above all, be genuine.  The success of the outcome is in direct relation to your ability to:

  • Be compassionate
  • Think on your feet
  • Keep your head
  • See it through

Good luck!

Photo credit iStockphoto

About the Author

Bonni Titgemeyer

Bonni Titgemeyer is the Managing Director of The Employers’ Choice Inc. She has been in human resources for 20+ years and works in the international HR arena. She is the recipient of the 2012 Toronto Star HR Professional of the Year Award. You can connect with Bonni on Twitter as @BonniToronto, often at the hashtag #TEPHR.


Tim Baker, CHRP (@TimBakerHR)

Fantastic post, Bonni. Takes me back to my days working for an EAP provider. This is a situation that I discussed very often with my HR contacts. They key is that helping the employee “solve” their personal problems is NOT an HR job. As you mentioned, we are not psychologists. Our priority is to get the appropriate support for the employee, while communicating any job related performance issues. HOWEVER…this does not mean that we can’t be empathetic, compassionate, understanding. That should be the role of any HR person…or any manager for that matter.

Thanks for posting this…

Tes Ahmed

All good common-sense – being someone who is approachable is part of the job but it is a difficult balancing act especially if there is a break down in a manager and staff member relationship.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *