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In February 2020, Rachel Wagner’s husband fell and suffered a TBI (traumatic brain injury). He was hospitalized for 15 days, including four days in the ICU. “We had never experienced anything like this,” says Rachel, owner of Rachel Wagner Etiquette and Protocol, an etiquette consulting and training company. “I was overwhelmed by the support we received, especially from his employer.”
Rachel’s husband’s company paid for house cleaning services while he was in the hospital and colleagues sent food baskets and other convenience items to make their lives easier. “These gestures of kindness meant so much and had such a big impact,” says Rachel. “More than anything, employees want to know that their employer cares.”
All employees will face challenges at some point in their life, and leadership is about helping them through those hard times. Gone are the days of employers expecting people to leave their humanity and emotions at home. “Positive emotions are at the heart of connecting, collaborating, and creating,” says Edward D. Hess, professor at the Darden School of Business and author of Hyper-Learning: How to Adapt to the Speed of Change. “Great leaders make a point of showing employees they see and value them as unique human beings.”
Creating a culture of compassion in the workplace benefits both individuals and the overall success of the company. “Successful companies genuinely care for the well-being of their team,” says Danielle Kovachevich, instructor at the Detroit Academy of Etiquette. When employees are going through a tough time, surprising them with something thoughtful, comforting, or that puts a smile on their face will remind them that they’re not alone and that they have a strong support system at work.
Below, experts share advice on how to best deliver compassion in tough times.
Reach out, even if you don’t know what to say or do
Sometimes it’s hard to find the right words in a professional setting, but it’s better to say something than nothing. “If your intentions are pure and kind, it will leave a lasting impression,” says Danielle.
John Stevenson, Marketing Specialist at My GRE Exam Preparation, was going through a rough patch and his boss said something that always stuck with him: I hope whatever’s bringing you down passes by quickly. “I realized that having a boss like this who is truly compassionate and empathetic to their employee’s feelings is really important and rare — it ignites a feeling of loyalty to the company, and provides fuel to the need to keep doing better,” says John.
Send a gift or token of care
“Is there anything I can do to help?” That’s a common inquiry and offer of compassion, but the risk is that you then put the burden on the employee to come up with an answer. Essentially, you’ve added another to-do to their already packed plate. Instead, be proactive in your approach. “When something bad is happening to us, we become inwardly focused, and we often don’t hear what people are saying,” says Jodi Smith, president of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting, which offers etiquette training and webinars. “That’s why flowers, handwritten notes, and boxes of chocolate are important because they’re tangible expressions of appreciation.” Those items will register more on someone’s consciousness than a fleeting conversation.
Consider the nature of your relationship and be genuine
No two employees are alike, so there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to supporting employees through the most difficult times in life. “But, above all, people are looking for support, understanding, and friendship,” says Bonnie Tsai, founder of Beyond Etiquette, which offers courses on international etiquette and protocol. “Be sure to check in with them to let them know you’re there and available if they’re feeling overwhelmed.” If it’s a colleague or team member with whom you’re especially close, send something more personal, like a sentimental memento or a favorite comfort food item.
If the gift is for someone who works a few departments away and you don’t know their particular preferences, look for a popular and crowd-pleasing gift like a basket of fruit.
Here are some tips on how to proceed when one of your employees find themselves in a challenging situation.
Death of a loved one
Do your research on different religious observances in times of death. In some religions sending white flowers is okay, in others it’s not, says Jodi.
In the note, make sure to acknowledge the loss and your support and care. One example is, “Thinking of you and your family during this difficult time…”
Serious illness of self or loved one
Don’t make more work for someone, says Jodi. If someone’s in the hospital, send long-lasting balloons or a plant and save the fresh flowers for when they’re out of the hospital.
Give them a choice. Say, “I want to help you feed your family — which do you prefer?” If you leave it open ended, they may not accept help.
Other personal challenges
When an employee experiences a financial setback in their family, whether it is their partner losing a job, a house fire or other emergency, it can affect their work as well, Bonnie says. So, consider gifts that provide comfort for the whole family.
Know that in these situations, your note is even more important to set the right tone, says Tsai. Focus your message on providing support for the employee during this challenging time.