Even though I’ve been told I am a lovely person with a kind smile and a soothing voice, most employees really don’t want to be in my office. Why is that? I am a performance specialist with the employee assistance program (EAP). If you are in my office, it likely means your job is on the line.
Employers will often use their EAP in addition to placing an employee on either a performance improvement plan or as part of a disciplinary action. They look to the EAP to assess if mental health or substance abuse may be standing in the way of an employee behaving appropriately in the workplace. They also look to the EAP to coach employees on how to make these necessary changes.
I have seen employees end up in my office for a variety of reasons. Some knew a disciplinary action was coming, like the client who had missed four workdays in a month because he had been taking sick days for hangovers. Some are caught by complete surprise, like the gentleman who didn’t realize shouting at a coworker while clutching a hammer could be seen as threatening. He had thought that his employer’s disciplinary action was just too extreme.
Most employees I encounter wonder, How could I have prevented this? In trying to answer this question, I came across a blog by Howard Adamsky entitled, Workplace Survival Skills: 9 Points on Keeping Your Job. Howard advises, “You and you alone are the one in charge of where your career is going.” I agree with this. Howard’s advice, however, was geared toward employees looking to prove themselves indispensable to employers looking to make cuts. My clients are truly looking to figure out how to survive. They need more concrete advice. Based upon their experiences, I compiled a list of behaviors that lead to trouble, as well as suggestions to address them.
Don’t abuse your personal days. The unforeseen happens. Sometimes you just can’t be at work – your dog died yesterday, your brother is in jail, your boyfriend’s son got suspended from school, your babysitter came down with the flu or your car broke down, etc. These things happen, but when they happen repeatedly, this becomes absenteeism. If unexpected situations are occurring as frequently as once a month, I encourage you to evaluate your decision before calling in. Ask yourself: “Will not being at work really make the situation any better? Am I the only person who can address this problem? Am I over-extending myself by addressing this problem? Do I have a reasonable Plan B in place if this problem arises again? Does this problem need to be addressed immediately or does it just feel urgent?” If you are able to postpone addressing the issue, do it. It will look better in the eyes of your employer if you are able to wait and schedule your time off to address an issue.
Use your personal days. I have worked with countless people who have started their sentences with the words, “I should have just called in.” Instead, they went to work when they were feeling less than capable and something happened – they were smelling like alcohol, they were short-tempered and swore at their boss, or they made a huge error due to inattention. If your gut feeling is telling you that you are pushing your limits, listen to that. Take that day off, but while you are, spend some time figuring out how you got into this position. Were you making reckless choices, like overindulging at happy hour? Do you have increasing stressors and no stress management practice in place? Start working with a professional so that you have a greater sense of balance, and are able to keep up with life’s expectations.
Substance Use. Know your employer’s policies related to substance use. Many employers do random drug screens. Know if yours is one of them and if you choose to use drugs, know that you are making a decision that could potentially impact your employment. It is also generally not advisable to drink prior to the start of your workday, regardless of the time of day that you start. If you choose to do this, there is always the chance others may smell alcohol on you, or observe impairments you are not aware of. Also, be aware of your actions at off-the-clock activities like company picnics, business dinners and business trips. Many of my clients had been drinking at events where it would be acceptable, but took it too far. A DUI in a company car, a bar fight following a company softball game or passing out in the hotel hallway while on a business trip all gets back to your employer.
Watch your mouth. Swearing, insensitive jokes, shouting, bickering and name-calling do not go unnoticed. Many of my clients are not referred for one specific reason. Many have histories of inappropriate language. An EAP referral can come as a shock to the employee in this situation. They may have thought their behavior was tolerated, but will readily acknowledge that it wasn’t very professional. Most of us know what type of language is acceptable at work. Getting lazy at monitoring yourself, falsely believing this is acceptable behavior, or justifying unprofessional speech as part of your personality are excuses that set you up for unexpected problems. Continuing to behave this way does put you at disciplinary risk.
Phrases never to be used. There are certain phrases that I would suggest should not come out of anyone’s mouth while in the workplace. The first is, “I could kill him,” and the second is “I wish I was dead.” Many employers have very strict violence in the workplace policies. A statement that could have been made out of frustration, or in jest, is treated just as seriously as a statement that was an intended threat. If you are frustrated, find a better way to express this.
Manage your relationship with your manager. Know that your manager is not your friend, nor is he or she your enemy. There is a power differential between the two of you. This can be difficult to admit if you had worked together as peers before, had been friends, or your manager is younger or less experienced than you. Many managers are promoted into their positions after being star performers, not because they have studied and been groomed to have excellent managerial skills. They may not yet be equipped with the skills to meet the expectations you place on them. This may cause frustration on your end, but make sure you are managing this frustration appropriately. Walking out of meetings, not returning e-mails or deliberately ignoring directives are all indications you are not managing that frustration well.
If given a second chance, take it. Stubbornness will really get you nowhere. The more you fuss and argue, the worse you look. This also goes for sitting passively through, and appearing to block out, feedback. Learn to take constructive criticism, even if you feel the other party is entirely wrong. Feedback is a glimpse at how others perceive you. Accept that you are responsible for how you are perceived, and that it does take work on your part to change this.
Kate N, MS, CEAP, joined Empathia in 2005 as an EAP Counselor, then became a Performance Specialist in 2012. Kate has a master’s degree in Educational Psychology and is devoted to helping individuals determine how to make lasting changes. Prior to joining Empathia, she worked in the social work field as a case manager for Child Protective Services. Kate enjoys baking, yoga and escaping into the woods of Northern Wisconsin.