Dear HR Executive,
We've all been there: An employee shares her personal problems with you. Your instinct is to keep your distance. But part of you is pushing you to help another human being in need. What should you do? Your lawyer will tell you that getting involved exposes you to intolerable risks. It's hard to argue with that; I saw a case a couple years ago where an employee came to a manager saying he had a medical emergency and needed to find a doctor. The manager, trying to be helpful, recommended his personal physician. The employee went to see the doctor and wasn't happy with his treatment, so he sued the company for giving him a bum steer.
Best advice for managers: Once you take on a supervisory role, you represent the company. And since your company isn't in the business of dispensing advice on its employees personal problems, neither should you.
Here's a cautionary tale about what can happen when employees and managers get too close.
High risk: When managers get too personal with employees
Of course managers should be supportive of employees. But digging too deep into personal lives may open a Pandora’s Box.
It can be tempting to get involved in a worker’s home life – especially when performance may be affected. But whether the situation involves financial worries, a spouse’s illness or relationship problems, it’s way too easy to cross the line, as this case illustrates.
Killing her with kindness
Evelyn Bodett worked as a quality assurance manager for CoxCom, a cable television company. In 17 years of employment, Bodett had never been the object of a complaint. An evangelical Christian, Bodett supervised 13 people, including Kelley Carson, an openly gay woman. When Carson began reporting to her, Bodett made Carson’s homosexuality an issue. While she didn’t antagonize or call names, Bodett said homosexuality was against her religious beliefs.
One day, at a regularly scheduled performance review, Carson seemed distressed. Bodett asked what was wrong. Carson explained she’d recently broken up with her partner and asked Bodett for advice. Bodett said she believed the source of Carson’s distress was God’s anger with her lesbian lifestyle.
At Carson’s suggestion, Bodett shut the office door and the two prayed together. Soon after that, they went to church together. Then they attended a “Women of Faith Conference” for which Bodett paid Carson’s admission.
Six months later, Carson was offered a promotion. Her new job involved relocation from Phoenix to Omaha.
Bodett and Carson were both supervised by Mireille DeBryucker, VP of Customer Care. When DeBryucker learned of Carson’s relocation plan she asked about it. Carson claimed she was uncomfortable with the way her boss treated her sexuality.
Feared losing her job
DeBryucker asked why Carson hadn’t told Bodett or complained to HR. Carson said that she couldn’t afford to risk losing her job.
After meeting with HR, DeBryucker concluded Bodett’s behavior violated the firm’s harassment policy. Bodett was terminated for harassing Carson.
Bodett filed a lawsuit charging CoxCom with illegal termination. Her argument: She hadn’t threatened Carson. She’d merely prayed, gone to church and attended a Christian conference with her. She claimed her dismissal was an act of religious discrimination.
But the court found Bodett had harassed and intimidated Carson because of her sexuality. Bodett violated her employer’s harassment policies – even though she wasn’t aware of it.
This case shows what can happen when well-intentioned managers become too involved and forget to maintain a professional distance from their employees.
Here are steps you can take to make sure managers don’t cross the line:
- Remind managers about proper boundaries. Bodett could have been supportive at work without compromising her values or getting involved in Carson’s private life. Consider including a discussion – or even a role-playing session – about personal boundaries in your firm’s management training sessions.
- Set “personal talk” limits for performance evaluations. Bodett harassed Carson by imposing religion on her, beginning with Carson’s review. While she didn’t call her names or retaliate, she engaged in a form of “benign coercion” that exposed her employer to legal liability.
CoxCom may have won the case, but it lost a good manager. After all, it’s likely Bodett was fired because the firm feared a lawsuit from Carson. Clear boundaries could have prevented that.
Cite: Bodett v. CoxCom, Inc., U.S. Court of Appeals, 9th Circuit, No. 03-15112, 4/26/04.