The Management Maven

Dear Ms. Maven,

One of my employees just told me that his mother is dying. He doesn’t want anyone else in the office to know. I have always emphasized honesty in the workplace, and we have an office agreement that we will not lie to each other.
   What should I do?

   Uncertain Boss

Dear Uncertain,
   What you should do is nothing. At least about telling the workgroup. This is not your news, and it is not yours to decide whether or not to tell, or when to tell.
   The Maven loves it when workgroups articulate norms about communication and other issues, but this is a good time to remember that we mustn’t take them too far. Just because you’ve all agreed to be honest with each other — an admirable stance — doesn’t mean you have to tell each other everything.
   Grievous illness and death are difficult subjects that we all have to deal with, both in and out of the workplace. As a supervisor, you can be of great help to your employee in many ways. Protecting his privacy is just the beginning.
   First on the list: Does your firm have any employee assistance programs? If so, make sure he knows about all the benefits available to him and his family. Don’t try to convince him he should use services he doesn’t want to, but do make them easily available.
   Second: Start building-in as much time and schedule flexibility as you can into his workload. He may need to take time off with little or no notice. Ms. Maven has heard stories that made her hair curl about the ways some bosses behave in this situation but remains certain her readers would never do so.
   Third: Give as much flexibility as you can. Time off, creative working hours, and telecommuting are all great options.
   You must remember that this is a time when no one is at their best. Critical thinking and strategic planning may be the last skills available in your normally fabulous employee. Work with him.
   Ask him what kinds of tasks seem appealing and possible, and try to fill his plate with those. And provide a bit more quality checking than you might normally — basically — have his back, as they say. We’re all prone to more mistakes when under great stress — even the Maven!
   It simply cannot be said enough that grieving and caretaking are onerous duties that affect everyone differently. Expecting someone to act as they normally do is pointless. At times, even tracking a simple conversation will be more than they can do. Then again, some folks like to bury themselves in work, and distract themselves completely for at least those hours a day. Run with it when they do, and don’t try to persuade them differently unless you start to see it develop into a problem.
   Some of us will want sympathy and hugs. Some of us can’t stand any expression of sympathy for a variety of reasons. It might make us totally lose it, and who enjoys crying at work? The best way to know which is preferable? Ask. As always, the Maven finds that simply asking others what they prefer is a great way to find out. (One exception is if he’s a total stoic. If one of the things you KNOW about this person is that he won’t tell you what he needs, you may have to follow whatever has worked in the past — just adapted to the seriousness of this situation.)
   In short, simply do all you can to be of service. If you’re not of this mindset, or think that people should keep their problems, whatever they are, out of the workplace, then think about this: You have an opportunity to create a level of loyalty from this person to you and your organization that is unprecedented. We all know it costs a lot to lose great employees — so you can save a lot in the long term by giving up a little in the short.
   All that said, if his work deteriorates to a critical point, you may need to suggest that he take a leave of absence to deal with the situation. Within the framework of your firm’s policies and procedures, naturally, the Maven suggests covering his medical benefits at a minimum, and partial pay if you can. Of course if you’re flush pay full salary. Again, the investment will be worth it in the long run.
   Think of this as one of those ‘pay it forward’ sort of things. At some point, you will need the same sort of flexibility. If you have made it available to others, your chances of getting the same increase dramatically. And if not, you can always write the Maven and complain!
   If you have any questions you’d like the Maven to answer, please send them to with “Ms. Maven” in the subject line.

Ramona Abbott is a management consultant who specializes in on-site training and coaching for managers and supervisors. She can be reached at


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