It happens all the time: An employee approaches someone from HR to ask for help. Most of the time, that’s no problem.
But occasionally, HR pros find their work conversations veering dangerously toward inappropriately personal topics—from how to handle retirement investments to life-and-death health care decisions.
Should HR professionals give employees personal advice? Think twice before you do. It can be difficult for most employees to separate the personal you from your role as an HR manager, so your “friendly advice” can be perceived as an employer directive.
This doesn’t mean you can never give personal advice in your professional capacity. It does, however, require listening to your head before speaking from your heart.
It “depends on the situation and the culture of the company,” says Patty Wingard, HR director for Castle Worldwide, a test-development firm in North Carolina. “I have offered an employee personal advice. The employee was the caregiver to her mother, who was diagnosed with cancer and was given a short time to live. I had gone through the experience myself.”
Take Wingard’s lead to ensure that your guidance is received in the spirit in which it is given and your professional integrity remains intact.
- Do offer solicited advice only. “The employee came to me and asked for the advice. I did not seek her out,” Wingard explains. If employees want to confide in you, they will.
- Do couch advice in terms of “here’s what I did,” not “here’s what you should do.” Within those parameters, it’s OK to share your own suggestions on how to cope, resources you found useful and insights into your own experience.
- Don’t broach extremely personal topics. Offering advice for dealing with a loved one’s illness is one thing. Making judgments on his or her care is quite another.
In one notorious legal case, a supervisor’s personal advice was neither professional nor compassionate.
She told a pregnant employee that she herself had had an abortion—and for days afterward, advised the employee to have one, too. The repeated suggestions led a court to uphold the employee’s subsequentand retaliation case. (Paz v. Wauconda Healthcare and Rehabilitation Centre, LLC, 7th Cir., No. 05-2837)
- Don’t pressure employees to act on your advice. In the Paz case, the repeated comments eventually wore on the employee, who claimed she was afraid she would be fired if she didn’t have an abortion.
- Don’t punish an employee for not taking your advice. Avoid any kind of recriminations that could possibly lead the employee to believe your personal advice could have official consequences.
- Do clarify that the advice is coming from a friend, and not a company representative. This is especially important when talking to a subordinate, who, like the employee in Paz, might fear negative job consequences for not heeding the advice.
- Never assume that the door is always open for you to talk to an employee about their personal issues, even if they initially approached you. Don’t press for details, try to find out whether they’ve taken your advice or offer additional advice.
Note: When it comes to offering financial advice related to benefits programs, don’t. That’s definitely unethical, and could expose you and your employer to significant legal liability.
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