How Do You Spot (and Save) an Employee Drowning in Their Job?

You know the crazy thing about drowning? It doesn’t look like you’re drowning!

Read this from Coast Guard rescue swimmer Mario Vittone:

  1. Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is the secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled, before speech occurs.
  2. Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. The mouths of drowning people are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out for help. When the drowning people’s mouths are above the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly as their mouths start to sink below the surface of the water.
  3. Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface. Pressing down on the surface of the water, permits drowning people to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe.
  4. Throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. Physiologically, drowning people who are struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer, or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.
  5. From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response people’s bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. Unless rescued by a trained lifeguard, these drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.”

Can you see your “drowning” employees?

Take away the eventual water death, and this seems eerily familiar to some of our employees.

As HR Pros/hiring managers/supervisors, we have people who are drowning in their positions right now, but we can’t “see” them drowning. Employees have natural things they do in terms of self-preservation, much like some one who is truly drowning.

They begin to: put in extra time at the office, they seem a little to stressed for normal work, they make things bigger than what they are (this gives them an excuse in case of failure), etc. – it gives you an impression “they’re on top of it” – but they aren’t. They tend not to ask for help; they don’t want anyone to know they’re in trouble – they can handle it on their own.

Three ways to spot an employee going under

How do you spot an employee who is going under?

  1. Look for employees who are disengaging with key relationships they need to have to get their job done. Why? Employees who are drowning will disconnect from those who will be the first ones to spot them drowning – key hiring managers or peers from other departments – which buys them time from their own supervisors finding out they aren’t staying afloat.
  2. They become defensive or blame shift when this isn’t usually part of their normal behavior. Another mechanism they use as a life preserver – “it’s not me – it’s them!”
  3. Drowning employees tend to cling to each other. Rarely will you see a drowning employee hanging with a top performer (that’s one more person who will see they aren’t making it).

How do you save an employee who is drowning? That’s even tougher than spotting them!

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Saving a drowning worker

Because it takes you confronting them and not allowing them to cop-out, most HR Pros/hiring managers/supervisors find this very uncomfortable (hello Performance Management!) It basically takes you jumping into their role – deep – and pulling them out.

Most of us don’t like getting our clothes wet and ruining our iPhone, so we try and throw them things to help instead – additional training, words of encouragement, EAP, discipline. Sound familiar? What they need is some full life saving — to push them up for air and help them to shore (you’re sick of metaphors at this point! – actually do the job with them for a while and show them how it should be done).

You still might decide when it’s all done to let the person go – they just can’t handle the position – but some will actually learn from the experience and turn out to be really good.

This was originally published on Tim Sackett’s blog, The Tim Sackett Project.

Tim Sackett, MS, SPHR is executive vice president of HRU Technical Resources, a contingent staffing firm in Lansing, MI. Tim has 20 years of HR and talent background split evenly between corporate HR gigs among the Fortune 500 and the HR vendor community ? so he gets it from both sides of the desk. A frequent contributor to the talent blog Fistful of Talent, Tim also speaks at many HR conferences and events. Contact him here.


3 Comments on “How Do You Spot (and Save) an Employee Drowning in Their Job?

  1. It is also important to keep in mind that what is perceived to be a drowing employee could also be a a sign that there may be other problems among the employee’s relationship which may deal with feelings of being bullied.  Aside from assisting the employee with the tasks it is also important to keep lines of communication open to get down to the root of the problem.

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