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People Management

She’s Forgetful? Hope It’s Just Stress

By Alison Shaw and Ray Martin

Your long-tenured secretary arrives at work in the morning and forgets to turn on her workstation lights, misfiles a court pleading and fails to confirm a client meeting. While this isn’t the first time, you want to believe it’s just temporary. But you fear it’s something more. Compassion may make the difference between paying employment lawyers to help you navigate through a legal quagmire — and resolving a human issue quickly, without conflict or drama.

Opening the Channels of Communication with Sensitivity and Patience

While many human resources situations require direct, aggressive and decisive action, others are better handled with sensitivity, compassion and patience.

This situation is clearly in the second category. If approached in an accusatory and confrontational manner, your secretary is likely to clam up, feel anxious, attacked and alone, and may suspect she is a victim of disability discrimination. By approaching her in a calm, unassuming, non-threatening and respectful manner, however, you can often diffuse a situation that has the potential to escalate. The channels of communication are opened, and a positive conversation that might actually lead to resolving the problem becomes far more likely.

Just as you would with any client, playing to your secretary’s strengths is far more effective than pointing out her deficiencies. As difficult as it is, avoid projecting the classic self-fulfilling prophecy.

A Balanced, Compassionate Approach to Performance Issues

Forgetful and distracted employee performance could mean many things and any number of factors could be contributing to performance problems. Depression or other health ailments are common and can be brought on or worsened by the stress of caregiving, for example, while trying to earn a living. Memory deficiencies could be symptomatic of a larger problem — or something quite small. Jumping to a quick conclusion may be in no one’s best interest.

Discuss the problems you’re observing with your secretary in an objective and supportive manner, and ask for her ideas in coming up with solutions. Rather than respond defensively (the first step in escalation), our experience has been that your secretary may well appreciate the time and attention you’re devoting to her performance problems. Take the time to offer your ear while avoiding the temptation to “diagnose,” and she will be more likely to provide the insight you need to identify remedial measures that work for both of you. When discussing solutions, your secretary is more likely to accept what is being offered when it comes from a place of compassion and sensitivity.

Take a balanced approach that strikes a chord between understanding your secretary’s limitations and avoiding exposure to future risk. By doing so, you will likely satisfy both interests evenly and in the most humane way possible.

Here are keys to a compassionate approach:

  1. Identify the problem.
  2. Address the underlying factors, but only if volunteered—avoid the temptation to diagnose.
  3. Start a mutual, respectful dialogue concerning solutions—adjust job responsibilities, establish procedures to address errors with routinely monitored task lists, and so on.
  4. Ensure that the problem is remedied.
  5. Routinely check-in and follow up.
  6. Offer additional suggestions for improvement on an ongoing basis, and document everything.

Don’t rush things. There is no established timetable to remedy the problem. One size does not fit all.

Raymond W. Martin is a partner Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell LLP in Denver. He has represented some of Colorado’s largest employers in labor and employment litigation in the federal and state courts in the Rocky Mountain region for more than 30 years. Alison L. Shaw is the head paralegal of the labor and employment practice group at Wheeler Trigg, where she performs case management responsibilities from the initial information-gathering stage through discovery and trial. She is experienced in conducting sensitive internal HR investigations for clients in cases pending in federal and state courts as well as in administrative proceedings.

Categories: Law Firm People Management
Originally published August 23, 2012
Last updated July 5, 2022
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