The Compassionate Leader

Question: I am a senior executive in a financial services firm. I am facing a real ethical and emotional dilemma. One of my staff is experiencing some severe personal and health problems. In the past 6 months, she has used up all her leave and is now asking to have an altered work schedule to accommodate doctors’ appointments and court dates. My compassionate nature wants to give her all the time she needs. But her financial situation means she can’t reduce her work hours. She wants to reduce her hours and somehow make them up at a later date. How much compassion can I extend here?

Alice Waagen says: You are unfortunately struggling in what I see as the difficult balance between being compassionate and being a good steward of corporate resources. Your human side rightly wants to help this person in need yet your job as an organizational executive requires you to be a good steward of the resources entrusted to you by the company. Lean too far to the compassionate side and you will be paying a person for a full day’s work and only getting half in return. This is bad for business and looks poorly on your leadership abilities. Lean too far to the stewardship responsibility and you look heartless and uncaring.

I wish I had a concrete, black and white answer to give you that would tell how much compassion is enough. Unfortunately, this is a judgment call you will need to make not only looking at the individual situation but also on the impact of her absences on the team. When the negative effects of being compassionate outweigh the good will, you will need to firmly tell her that the needs and the requirements of the position need to be addressed.

Here is how I would do it. Pull the job description and performance plan for the position (hopefully these are up to date and accurate). Describe the time and attendance required to perform adequately in the job. If the job requirements don’t support an altered work schedule and variable attendance, state clearly what you need from her to from this point forward. The ball is now in her court. She needs to deliver the job as described or seek another position that is more flexible and adjustable.

By using the job requirements as the basis for your decision, you will hopefully be keeping the conversation on a neutral, professional level and not get pulled into an emotional plane. Give her a day or two to come back to you with her decision on whether she can commit to the job as it is defined or whether she will seek another employment alternative. Remember – this is not your decision to make. It is her job to determine how to handle her job and life commitments.