By Barbara Haga

This month we are exploring what a referral to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) looks like.

Referral in Daily Practice

Years ago OPM had a film that I often used in supervisory training on EAP.  In fact, I used it so many times I can practically quote the script.  Unfortunately, it was quite dated.  The manager in the video was wearing a plaid sports coat right out of the ’70s and, at one point during the employee’s downward spiral, you saw a scene where the manager was in his office bemoaning his fate while emptying his pipe into an ash tray.  Obviously an update was needed and OPM released one, but I never thought that the updated one did as good a job of showing the actual referral.

I will never forget the employee in the original version; her name was June, and she seemed to be having some family problems that were coming with her to work.  It appeared that she was a Management or Program Analyst or something similar.  Her performance had deteriorated.  She was missing deadlines and messing up on details, and when she was asked about a work issue by a senior manager she chewed him out!  The immediate supervisor was Charlie. In his initial meetings with her, June was very good at deflecting his focus on her performance issues. For example, when he talked to her about errors in a report where the sums didn’t tally properly, she came back at him with “I found those errors and I have corrected them and I will have the report on your desk by the end of the day.”  She even patted him on the shoulder and said, “Everything’s going to be okay, Charlie.”  After a few exchanges like that, the supervisor was at his wits’ end, and June’s mistakes and omissions and poor behavior were beginning to reflect on him.

Like most training films, the manager tries it on his own without “guidance” and doesn’t fare very well, and then he gets help in planning out the referral and delivers the message the way he should have. The EAP counselor helps him prepare for the meeting with June.  She tells him to focus on the deadlines and mistakes and to stop focusing on what he thought was going on outside of work.  That’s excellent advice even by today’s standards.

Written Referral

The portion of the film when the manager advised June that she was being referred to EAP was done very, very well, and it became the model I followed when I advised managers how to do this.  In the film, the manager put together a letter describing June’s failing performance giving specific examples of the errors and omissions.  The film did not depict it as a PIP notice but was instead a warning that her performance was below standard.

I still recommend today that managers do written referrals documenting what the issues are.  This accomplishes several things.  First, it makes it real for the manager; he or she has to write down the details of what was wrong and why it was wrong.  Secondly, it makes it real for the employee.  Being chastised by someone about mistakes verbally isn’t pleasant, but seeing a formal letter that recounts these things is quite a different experience for most people.  Finally, it can help the EAP counselor.  Sometimes employees agree to go but then do the “I have no idea why I am here” routine with the counselor.  The letter helps the counselor ask about specifics.  In June’s case it might have been, “You had a conversation with Mr. Smith last Friday about a problem with a budget report.  How did that conversation start?  What did Mr. Smith ask you?”  By asking these kinds of questions the EAP counselor may get the employee to open up about what led up to the outburst that was reported to her supervisor. [Editor’s Note: As we teach in our UnCivil Servant seminar for managers, contemporaneous notes like these are an excellent defense should the employee challenge the supervisor in a grievance or complaint.]

The letter delivered in the film included a referral to the EAP counselor that Charlie had worked with.  When June came in to his office for the meeting, attitude in tow of course, he handed her a copy of the letter.   He reviewed the letter, focusing on the performance deficiencies.  He told her that he was referring her to the EAP.  June became agitated and said, “This is an adverse action letter.  I’ll file a grievance.”  The manager responded that it wasn’t an adverse action; it was simply a referral to the program.  He went on to say that things had to change and that her performance problems could no longer be tolerated.  When she pushed back he said something like, “June, you have excuses for everything, but something has to be done about your performance.”

June finally started to relent a bit and said, “Things at home have been tough for me lately, but it’s not something I can’t handle on my own.”  Charlie wraps up the meeting by repeating that her performance has to change.  He goes on to say, “The choice is up to you whether you go to EAP or not.  But, whether you go or not will be very important to me.”  At the end of the film we didn’t know whether she went, but Charlie can show that he took reasonable steps to put her on notice about her performance and offered her a chance to take advantage of the EAP.

Preparing the Manager in Today’s World

The world Charlie lived in is likely very different than what most agencies experience today.  An actual on-site skilled EAP counselor is a luxury many agencies don’t have.  Instead they rely on Federal Occupational Health (FOH) or some other long distance service to take care of their counseling services.  While that may be the most efficient answer, especially for agencies with widely dispersed populations, it doesn’t take care of the problem of preparing the manager.  Sometimes it falls on the HR practitioners to help the managers get ready for conversations with employees on tough topics like what was described above.

Putting referral information in the letter is a good start, but even the most brilliantly written referral letter, warning notice, or proposed performance or disciplinary action will not achieve its goals if it is delivered poorly and the meeting goes off track. That means not just e-mailing letters but going over the content with the manager and anticipating what kinds of things could come up and giving the manager an opportunity to think through the possibilities and how he or she will respond.

We generally don’t see managers being hired because they have experience with this sort of thing.  They have experience in other areas like budget, forestry, or rocket science.  We expect them to learn these kinds of techniques on the job.  I wish I could tell you that there is a good OPM film or course available to help you help them.  I looked through the HR University website but I didn’t see a course that seemed to cover this type of topic.  But, it is something worth investigating or developing materials for your own use.  It will be worth the investment. Haga@FELTG.com

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