How HR Should Manage an Employee Going Through a Divorce

Approximately 90% of people in western cultures get married by the time they turn 50. In the U.S., nearly half of the couples end up getting a divorce. Yikes!

If your company has a hundred employees, there’s a very good chance that you will deal with multiple employees that will go through a divorce. As work is a part of everyday life, rarely will an employee able to completely hide the divorce’s effects. As HR, how should you deal with an employee going through this emotional time?

When employment issues arise because of stress at home, HR professionals are put to the test. After all, you are in human resources working for a business with a bottom-line. As an employment lawyer and a family lawyer, we want to help. We see these issues play out in court rooms. It’s not pretty. In this article, we’ll suggest how you should handle this problem from a human perspective, because acting like a compassionate person is the first and best line of defense to lawsuits.

What to expect

There are plenty of different reactions you’re going to see when this happens. The divorcing employee may breakdown and cry in their office, act ashamed or embarrassed, avoid co-workers, and perform poorly for periods of time. Even more challenging for HR, is that co-workers around the divorcing employee may avoid the employee, try to offer unsolicited advice, gossip, or try to take advantage of the person by blaming them for team failures. All of these things do affect the company’s profits, atmosphere, and/or culture.

Being an actual human in HR

Let’s get this out of the way. Your job is to manage the recruiting, screening, interviewing, and placing of the workers for the company. It is also your job to protect the company. Your job description doesn’t tell you to hold the hands of crying employees. But, remember why you got into HR in the first place! You like humans. You probably want to help other people. Listening and comforting may come easy to you, the difficult part may be knowing where to draw the line for a struggling employee.

As humans, our core foundations include our jobs, health, family and relationships. When one of these is out of place, we lose the feeling of security. When you are comforting the employee who is going through a divorce or is freshly divorced, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Have genuine compassion. Everyone has a different way of expressing their emotions; allow them to feel what they feel. Let them know that they are allowed to be sad.
  • Just listen. Sometimes you need to just listen; don’t offer any advice and don’t make them feel wrong for feeling these emotions.
  • Don’t scoff at how they feel. Any negative reaction, like ridiculing, will feel 10x worse to the person going through the problem
  • Don’t bother with pep talks. It’s also not your job to make them feel happy. It’s your job to recognize their feelings, and help them remain a productive member of the organization.

You have business responsibilities

But don’t forget your responsibilities. You must keep the business side of things in mind:

  • If the employee’s performance is going downhill, give him/her gentle reminders. You don’t need to hammer them with, “Your divorce isn’t this company’s problem.” Harsh statements like that from HR folks are never forgotten, and often come up in litigation down the road.
  • Don’t let gossip concerning this employee get around the office. Stamp that out immediately with written warnings.
  • If a divorcing employee’s performance is below standards, you need to do what HR does to any other employee who consistently performs badly. After all, this is a business. Have a serious talk with the employee and let them know that they need to start performing better or something will have to be done. But by all means, do this with grace. Tell them that you don’t expect perfection, just that you need to see consistent results.

If you have to give the employee a written warning, understand that you still should be compassionate towards them. This issue here is serious and must be dealt with correctly or you may be looking at a lawsuit for discrimination later on – we’ll get to this in the next section.

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Finally, some employers have an Employee Assistance Program for situations like this. EAP’s often provide counseling for employees who are undergoing traumatic personal events. Many educational institutions and public entities have established EAP’s already in place.

Protect the company from future lawsuits

Did you know that marital status is, in certain states, a protected characteristic in employment law? It isn’t under Title VII, but some states (like California) do protect it. It’s often overlooked, but marital status discrimination is when an employer treats the employee differently because of the worker’s marital status (single, married, divorced, etc.).

In such states, if a divorced employee can provide evidence that he/she was discriminated against because of his/her divorced status, the company can get in trouble. Your job is to do things right and to handle things gracefully so that nothing is seen as discriminatory.

Remember that bullet point above about making sure that a divorcing employee doesn’t continue poor performance for too long? If you have to terminate or discipline an employee because of poor performance, make sure that you have proof of poor performance as being the reason for it. Keep records of when you reminded the employee to perform better or when you gave them warnings. Take note of specific things that reflected the poor performance. Write everything down just in case the day of a lawsuit for this termination comes around. Without evidence, this employee may claim that he/she was discriminated against because of their marital status.

We all experience ups and downs. Your goal in these circumstances should be to strike a good balance for the company. You don’t want to lose a perfectly good employee because of a period that will be over soon enough, but you also don’t want the company to suffer because the employee can’t handle their situation professionally. Our suggestion is to be compassionate and consistent and you’ll likely reap benefits of a loyal employee for years.

Jason Smith is a family lawyer in Orange County, California. He represents men and women in divorce, child custody, alimony, and paternity issues. After seeing many of his clients go through heart-wrenching divorces, he hopes to reach out and educate the greater public about issues that divorcing couples face.

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1 Comment on “How HR Should Manage an Employee Going Through a Divorce

  1. Very good advice. But why do you say it’s not HR’s job to make sure people are feeling happy? Happiness is quite strongly linked to productivity, and while I agree that you probably shouldn’t let marriage counselling become your primary job role, I don’t think there’s anything too wrong with giving a bit of “pep talk” to perk up an unhappy person. In fact, if you take a look at one of our customers, Ella’s Kitchen – very successful brand – you’ll see that their HR department is actually called the Keeping People Happy team. Either way, nice article and some very sound advice.

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