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FAQs - Personal Problems

There is a faculty member in my department who is going through some rough times in his marriage and seems to be having trouble at work. Do I say anything or just stay out of it?

It might be nice if you approached him gently and asked him how he is doing and offer support. You might say something like, “I know this is a very difficult time for you and I wanted to see if there was anything I could do to help. Maybe I can just be available to offer some moral support or there may be resources that we can find to help. If there is anything I can do, just let me know.”

This sort of “soft inquiry” can be very helpful where you show concern BEFORE his problems begin to affect his work. It also sets the stage for follow up sessions should they become necessary if his work suffers. At this point you have shown concern for his well being and it is a nice collegial climate to establish. If the “rough times” continue, you may find you will have to make some temporary accommodations. Other faculty members may be willing to help now and then during the short-run.

In the early going if you need to make special work accommodations it is best to set up some specific items as well as some timelines when the special accommodations will end. If you don’t do that, you may find that the “temporary special accommodations” will turn into permanent expectations, which end up being unfair to other faculty or staff members. Generally colleagues will help out a faculty member in a crisis situation, but you will have to monitor the situation carefully so he does not start to make unreasonable requests for accommodations. If the conditions persist, you may want to refer the faculty member to the Employee Assistance Program for additional help.

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There is a faculty member in my office who I think is an alcoholic. How do I tell and what do I do?

This is often a tough problem for a department chair to confront due to the sensitive nature of the problem. In addition, the chair often wonders if he or she should get involved with the faculty member’s personal problem. Chairs first have to remember that their role is to respond to the issue of alcohol or drug abuse as it influences the faculty member in the workplace. A troubled faculty member who is abusing alcohol and/or drugs will usually exhibit several of the following characteristics you can look for:

Warning Signs of Substance Abuse

  • Declining or erratic job performance or poor work quality
  • Absenteeism and an excessive use of sick leave—particularly a pattern of missed Mondays and Fridays
  • Pattern of deteriorating teaching evaluations over several years
  • Increasing tardiness to meetings, appointments, and classes - even missing them altogether
  • Decreased creativity or initiative
  • Increasingly negative attitude and cynicism often including increased hostility or emotional outbursts
  • Depression, irritability or unpredictable responses to ordinary requests
  • Very dilated or very constricted pupils or blood-shot or watery eyes
  • Hand tremors
  • Recurrent multiple personal life problems
  • A pattern of not being available during posted office hours

Generally, the goal is to create an ongoing climate where you discuss performance issues regularly with all faculty members. Then when an issue like this comes up, you will have already established the ground rules for talking about work performance. There are several strategies or techniques that are particularly important in order to obtain an effective intervention with an alcohol or drug abusing faculty member. Below is a list of some useful general strategies.

Maintaining the Intervention Process

  • When a problem develops, document specific examples of problem behaviors including when, where, and what happened. Discuss how this is incompatible with fulfilling the professional obligations that have been laid out all along. Objectively describe what the person did or did not do. Relate these examples to individual, departmental, and University performance expectations. Do not ignore prolonged declining job performance. If you suspect the individual is distributing drugs in the work setting, you should consult the University Personnel Office prior to any intervention with the individual.
  • Meet privately with the person to review the documentation, emphasizing patterns rather than specific incidents. A single incident may have an acceptable explanation; however, patterns of poor or unacceptable performance more effectively describe a problem. If the person has a split appointment between two departments, both chairs should participate in the review session.
  • Avoid becoming involved in the individual’s personal problems or accepting excuses. Set up a plan that includes steps to improve performance and set deadlines and suggest that EAP be used as a resource. Schedule regular follow-up meetings to review progress.
  • Document any meetings, any changes in work assignments, and any follow-up plans in a memo to the individual and keep a copy for your files.
  • Successful intervention with a substance abuse problem often requires more than one review session before sustained positive performance change occurs. Plan for a series of interventions, if necessary. It generally takes about two years of consistent effort to get the situation to turn around. Consult with the EAP or Personnel for assistance on managing that process.
  • At each follow-up meeting, evaluate progress and emphasize the need for continued change. Don’t skip this step. It is difficult for most of us to maintain change without reinforcement. Note and comment on the things that have improved, in addition to noting those behaviors that still must be changed.

 

Some Words of Encouragement

  • Don’t get discouraged. Often this type of problem requires repeated interventions. Remember that although the faculty members may get angry or blow up, he or she will have heard what you said.
  • If you stay with it and are consistent, you can make changes.
  • The overarching issue is to focus on performance. Avoid making diagnoses or labeling someone an alcoholic; you can create problems for yourself or the University when you do that. Instead, focus on personal productivity issues and work outcomes and not on the drinking or drug abuse. However, you can discuss the behaviors that result if they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
  • The faculty members’ behaviors are relevant whenever they are representing the University in an official capacity, such as when they are at conferences and professional meetings, particularly when the University is paying the expenses.

Working through this particular problem can be very difficult on the department chair and the chair may need some additional consulting assistance. The Employee Assistance Program provides screening and referral assistance to staff and faculty for a wide variety of personal problems including drug or alcohol abuse.

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I think one of my faculty members is having psychological problems. How can I tell if it is really serious?

A troubled faculty member inevitably presents a sensitive and complex challenge. You naturally care about the well-being of the faculty member, and at the same time you must be concerned about the impact he or she has on colleagues, students, and departmental staff. When you observe or learn of behaviors in your faculty member that are cause for concern, you are right to trust your observations and instincts that something is wrong, and not ignore the problem. In considering whether an individual’s problems are serious or not, your main focus must be on whether the observed behaviors and conduct are affecting the faculty member’s job performance or creating problems for others in your department. This focus crucially keeps you out of the role of diagnosing psychological problems, and at the same time provides you with guidelines on how and when to intervene.

Anyone can have rough times that lead to temporary interference with work performance. Such temporary setbacks are generally understood and accepted. However, when unusual behaviors or inappropriate conduct gradually or suddenly increase, and when job performance continues to decline over a period of time, intervention is needed. While you are not in the role of diagnosing your faculty member, a person exhibiting one or more of the following signs or symptoms will likely require your intervention, and should receive professional help. (Because some psychological problems may be linked to alcohol or drug abuse, you are also encouraged to read the FAQ on faculty alcohol abuse.

  • increased tardiness to meetings and classes
  • unexplained absences and missed office hours
  • excessive use of sick leave
  • verbal outbursts or loss of emotional control
  • pervasive feelings or expressions of sadness or hopelessness
  • declining or erratic job performance or poor work quality
  • loss of interest and enjoyment in work and social interactions
  • significant reduction or increase in verbal expressiveness
  • significant change in level of social interaction-abnormally withdrawn or abnormally gregarious
  • verbal statements suggesting thoughts of harming self or others
  • increased irritability, cynicism, or negativity
  • mood swings
  • overreaction to criticism
  • inappropriate, rambling, or incoherent speech
  • suspiciousness or fearfulness of others
  • declining physical appearance-poor hygiene, less interest in dress or appearance
  • slowed or agitated physical movements

 

Tips for Effective Early Intervention

  • DO recognize declining job performance.
  • DO document specific incidents of problem behaviors and performance.
  • DO meet with the faculty member to discuss patterns of poor performance or inappropriate conduct. Relate the problem behavior to the individual’s job performance goals and departmental objectives.
  • DO treat the faculty member with respect and empathy, and work with them to set up a plan for improved performance.
  • DO accommodate the faculty member if they need time for treatment or stabilization, or temporary changes in workload or committee assignments.
  • DO contact your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for advice. The EAP is staffed by licensed psychologists who can help you organize your thoughts and observations regarding your faculty member’s behavior, and advise you how to communicate your concerns effectively.
  • DON’T ask them for information on psychiatric diagnoses or history-this violates ADA rules.
  • DON’T diagnose them - ironically, this can lead to delays in seeking help because some persons would engage in resisting your “diagnosis” instead of admitting a problem. It could also lead to complaints against you or problems for the University.
  • DON’T get involved in their personal problems-be empathic and supportive but keep the discussion focused on work productivity.

 

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There is a faculty member in my department who is dealing with a serious illness. Should he talk to someone about it?

You first might examine how this information came to you. Did the faculty member in question tell you about his situation or did you hear about it from someone else? Your answer to this question will influence your approach. If the faculty member came to you and told you about his illness, you now have an opening to use to inquire about his welfare and his potential need to talk about it with someone. If you heard about the situation indirectly, you still should approach the faculty member, but you will need to be clear that you are seeking him out from a position of concern about his welfare. As you gently inquire about his situation, remember that individuals vary widely in personal style, comfort with self- disclosure and need for self-sufficiency. If you or a family member has experienced serious illness in the past and found processing information and feelings with a counselor helpful, consider sharing your use of supportive counseling. Any endorsement you offer regarding the value of seeking outside help is useful, even if it does not come from your own personal life experience.

As your faculty member is undoubtedly aware, faculty do not accumulate sick leave; his ability to take paid time off is dependent upon your generosity and ability to creatively rearrange departmental resources to cover those responsibilities he must put aside for the moment. Because of your power in this situation, your faculty member may not feel comfortable being totally candid with you about this illness.

The benefits of “talking about it” may also vary by type of illness, i.e. is the illness acute, chronic or potentially fatal. Some of the more unnerving aspects of illness are the associated unknowns. Will I get back to my former level of health? When? Will there be chronic restrictions or limitations? Is this disease potentially fatal? If you know what the illness is that your faculty member is dealing with and, if you think it would be helpful to increase your general knowledge level about that disease, look it up on the Internet. There are helpful patient centered web sites that provide general information plus references for more detailed information. For example: www.DrKoop.com or www.WebMD.com.

The unknowns will be especially troubling for non-tenured faculty, particularly those supported by contracts or grants, because these positions often require product delivery on a specific timeline. Arranging sick leave for those funded on grants and contracts will also present more complex problems for you in arranging temporary coverage of those responsibilities. You will want to explore history and precedent in both your department and your college regarding decision-making in this area of sick leave for those with academic appointments. Your fiscal officer and the person with that role in the dean’s office may be helpful sources of information regarding previous decisions about this type of situation. While there is presently no written policy regarding academic use of sick leave, there may be in the future. Check with the Provost’s office regarding the status of any written guidelines.

You may also encounter decision-making issues regarding the health problems of a staff member. While personnel policies regarding the use of sick leave are more clearly spelled out for staff, resolving the issues surrounding long-term coverage for critical tasks can be challenging. Addressing the needs of the ill staff member while attending to fairness issues for other staff and the needs of the department requires careful thought. Check with your campus Human Resources Department for assistance in making difficult decisions in this area.

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There is a staff member in my department who recently got divorced. I hear that they are staying out late at night and frequently comes into work late. Sometimes they don’t even show up. Is there anything I can do to be helpful, yet make sure departmental work is addressed?

You are wise to approach this situation thoughtfully because there are fairness issues for both this individual and other staff. Avoid making comments to your staff member on how she chooses to spend her non-work time, focusing directly on job behaviors instead. You may see a connection between staying out late and coming to work late, but commenting on it could feel judgmental to your employee and shut down productive communication. There also may be additional factors affecting her attendance that have not come to your attention such as child care or transportation, a second job because of financial strains, etc. This job focus approach will be useful in deciding if you need to intercede with other changes you may observe. For example, you may observe changes in dress or behavior. As long as the changes at work are still within the realm of the professionally appropriate, don’t intervene.

Don’t ignore the developing pattern of undependability. Do listen to her comments and invite her to offer possible solutions. If you make flex time scheduling available to your employees, this possibility is one to keep in mind when you talk to her about this pattern of tardiness and unexcused absences. Clearly, you need to know when to expect her to appear at work in a consistent manner, but some slight adjustment in timing might make a productive difference. The potential impact of any adjustments in her schedule on the job functions of her co-workers needs to be taken into consideration.

Don’t make this just a one-time discussion with your employee. Set up a follow-up meeting to track the problems until there is stable resolution of the performance issues.

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There is a staff member in my office who seems prone to emotional outbursts. He has everyone in the office upset and afraid of him. How can I get him to be less offensive to others and work more cooperatively?

Explosive or intimidating people can wreck havoc on office morale, so this staff member’s behavior must be addressed promptly. Given the feelings of your office staff, the situation will require direct intervention by you in order to restore a positive work environment. This being said, behavior does not exist in a vacuum. It is important to take a close look at the situation and the issues that may be involved, so you may know where to seek the best solutions. The recommendations here are grouped into actions focused on the individual employee, and actions or issues focused on the larger “systems” (departmental, organizational issues) that may be part of the solution. Taking both of these perspectives into account will hopefully give you strategies for requesting the specific changes needed as well as strategies for change maintenance.

Focus on the Difficult Employee

  • Before proceeding, monitor the individual’s behavior to see how it manifests in terms of specific, tangible actions on his part. You may have to gather this information from the staff who are affected by it, but in any case make sure that the “emotional outbursts” or “intimidating” behavior can be described in specific terms and specific instances, so that you can be clear on the changes for which you are asking.
  • Meet with the employee and present the situation in terms of specific improper behavior in specific events. Make it clear that your objective is to get him to perform his duties according to your standards, and that this includes civil and cooperative working relationships with other staff. It may be a good idea to ask him for his view of the problem, and ask him to suggest solutions. Listen to what he has to say, but keep the agenda focused on the specific changes he needs to make in his behavior.
  • For some employees this interview will be sufficient. It may be that he did not know his behavior was such a problem. Or, even if he blames others, he is on notice that his behavior is unacceptable and will not go unnoticed.
  • If change is not forthcoming, you will need to be more heavy-handed. This involves invoking disciplinary action, referred to as “Progressive Discipline” in the MU Human Resource Policy Manual. Review policy HR601 on the MU Human Resource Web site.
  • Analyze the problem by looking at the larger picture, outlined below.

 

Some “Larger Picture” Considerations

  • Organizational change provides a department chair with many opportunities to deal with “people problems’ such as the one you are having. You, as a manager, have the right to make changes (i.e. in organizational culture, change of mission or emphasis). But cultures are notoriously slow to change, and you may have inherited this employee’s behavior from a previous culture that tolerated it. The procedures outlined above still apply, but in fairness to the individual and all your staff, communicate your expectations for the culture you want to achieve. Be specific about the interpersonal behaviors you expect-teamwork, cooperation, civility. Provide the proper training and support for staff who are required to learn new skills and competencies.
  • Revise the annual performance evaluation, if necessary, to include “Good Relations with Co-workers”, and make sure you communicate this change to all your staff.
  • Consider how a departmental shift in emphasis, for example, a focus on customer service, use of new technologies, or more team-based productivity, may affect your employee. Some employees suffer loss of recognition, a sense of competence, or comfort when the rules by which they operated for so long are changed. This does not excuse poor behavior, but it may give you some options in work design, project assignment, or special training for the employee if you know his performance history.
  • Spend some time getting to know this employee “outside” the problem behavior and see if you can get a better sense of what motivates this person’s commitment to the job. How does he define his job responsibilities and his role in your office? What kinds of recognition or rewards are, or have been, motivating to him in the past? You may discover some positive motivators that, used in combination with a firm expectation for behavior change, will encourage his commitment.

 

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One of the issues I confront is determining the line that we can not cross in “mentoring” faculty members or students. I’m told we are not supposed to recommend that they get counseling. Is this true?

Generally speaking the best rule of thumb on this issue is “thou shalt not diagnose or prescribe.” There are, however, pragmatic ways to work around those restrictions by focusing on the negative spillover of the individual’s personal life circumstances, problems, stressors that affect their job or school performance.

Regardless of the type of problem, one way to approach the issue is to utilize the “major stressors” concept in talking to someone because it is very socially acceptable to feel stressed these days. A subtle personal endorsement of seeking outside help is also helpful; in endorsing use of such resources you are not required to disclose your own personal life situation unless you want to and think it would be helpful.

One example of this approach might be something like…. “Sounds like you have had a lot of major stress going on in your life (all this semester, this year, for an extended period, for a couple of years, etc.) Sometimes I’ve found it very helpful to have an outside, objective person to bounce ideas around with and do some creative problem-solving. I don’t know if that makes sense to you, but I know the mental health co-pay for the University health insurance is really low.” Then, shut up. You have done your piece and the ball is in his/her court.

The specifics of the approach depends upon how well you know the person, the personal style of each of you, and your power role regarding that person. It is a little easier with students because when the problems continue to intrude you can remind them about your earlier suggestion. Of course, when a faculty member is worried about eminent self harm with a student all bets are off - we have had faculty members accompany students to the Counseling Center to provide support for that student in accessing needed care.

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Reviewed 2010-10-05.