Leading your team through the illness of one member is one of the greatest tests you’ll face. Keep these tips in mind:
- Don’t walk on eggshells. Don’t become hypersensitive; simply aim for normal behavior. There’s nothing wrong with the usual greeting of “How are you?” But it would be rude to hound the person for a detailed response. And don’t comment on the employee’s appearance.
- Avoid Aunt Sophie Syndrome. When an employee tells you that she has a serious illness, you may immediately recall someone who had a similar condition. Every situation is different, and the outcome for Aunt Sophie may be different from what this person faces. Don’t diagnose, and don’t project your experience onto this situation.
- Remember that you’re being watched. If one employee in your department is ill, the whole department is affected. Decide what the department response will be and state it clearly. Consider the precedent-setting nature of your decisions. Don’t offer star performers options that you won’t offer others. Employees will watch you closely to see how you respond to a seriously ill worker. Balance your compassion with making sure the job gets done.
- Don’t assume anything. Take a lesson from a company vice president who tells this story: “The first thing I said when my internal audit manager told me she had cancer was, ‘Forget about work.’ I wanted to make it clear I was more concerned with her fighting this thing than with any consideration about work. But I soon realized she wanted to dwell on work. That was her way of coping.”