Reaching out Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2009

If employees aren’t happy, Stephen E. Walters isn’t happy. He knows an isolated drop in productivity can impact his entire law firm. So why shouldn’t the firm help struggling employees?

That’s why Reminger Co. LPA established an Employee Assistance Program in 2001. The management realized some of its 335 employees faced problems that the standard benefits package couldn’t alleviate.

“When you’ve got personal issues that are affecting you, they affect your ability to do your job and it shows,” says Walters, the managing partner. “So you reach out and say, ‘What’s going on? We know when things are going well, you’re going to be great.’”

First, you have to establish trust so employees will feel comfortable opening up. It starts in small ways, such as simply saying hello when you pass someone in the hall, and gradually grows into longer conversations.

“The reason you say hello to somebody and you see how they’re doing and you treat everybody like you would want to be treated is … so they gain trust that this is someone who actually cares about other human beings,” Walters says.

You’ll also get to know employees through that interaction, providing the backdrop you’ll need to identify if they fall off track.

“You’ll see someone who has an established pattern of work change,” Walters says. “You look at attendance, attitude, quality of work, which are the indicators of how happy or motivated your people are.”

When you notice drop-offs in those areas, pull the employee aside. Because it may take multiple conversations to uncover the real problem, you should entrust the program to someone who has time to devote. Walters relies on his director of human resources.

Try to offer internal resources when possible. For example, Walters might direct an employee with financial hardships to a financial expert at Reminger who can help coordinate their bills or set a budget. The firm may even pay off an employee’s debt and work out a repayment plan.

But you won’t always have the resources, so you may have to refer employees elsewhere. If it’s a medical or substance abuse issue, for example, you need to recommend professional assistance.

But there is a catch — and it will help you gauge how much you can offer.

“Make sure that if you are helping someone, you know they have the ability to pay you back,” Walters says. “You don’t want to just say, ‘Here is a gift.’ You want to say, ‘We’re going to help you, but we also expect some things from you, as well.’”

Your program shouldn’t be built on handouts. Establish the employee’s end of the deal upfront, whether they’ll be making payments for a bill the company footed, bringing you copies of their credit report or letting you check in with their AA sponsor.

Thinking ahead to that follow-up will help you decide how much time, money and effort to invest in each case. You’d be able to offer more help to an employee with a few thousand in debt than one with hundreds of thousands.

“The point where you say how much is too much is when you know that they’ll never ever have the ability to give back to you what you’re giving to them,” Walters says.

It would be a mistake to help everyone to the extent he or she requests, especially if the same employee is coming to you with the same problem multiple times. The challenge is discerning who you can help and who will be the most successful when they recover.

“One, you want people to do a good job,” Walters says. “Two, you want to retain good people. But the third and most important is you want to treat other people well, and if you can help them out, it’s great.”

How to reach: Reminger Co. LPA, (216) 687-1311 or www.reminger.com

Making contact

Before you can help an employee, you have to know the problem. So Diane Giorgi, the director of human resources at Reminger Co. LPA and the head of its Employee Assistance Program, has to be a good listener.

Here’s Giorgi’s advice for establishing open communication:

  • “When somebody walks in your office, you’ve got to put your pen down. Look up at that person and really establish eye contact. Invite them in to sit down. Make your office inviting. Always have a very pleasant demeanor so that people are not afraid to approach you. Half the battle is getting them in.”
  • “You really cannot have a tone of judgment about you. We all come to the table with preconceived notions, so you really have to clear those out. You have to remind yourself that people come from all walks of life, even if you have to leave little quotes around your office or constantly do reading about how people overcome crisis situations and difficulties.”
  • “You have to limit the contact to within the hours of the workday. It’s easy to let this get away from you. It’s easy to give them your home number and say, ‘Call me on the weekend if you need me.’ You can’t do that, because it’s too much then.”