Blowback after expressing concerns of co-worker's suicide risk
May 25, 2016 12:07 PM   Subscribe

A friend from work (Rachel) disclosed to one of her close friends (Monica) that someone on her team (Phoebe) had expressed suicidal ideation that was becoming seriously concerning. Monica works at another location, so Rachel talked with Monica in order to get advice on how to report her concern while remaining anonymous, avoiding blowback, and keeping the trust of her team-mate. Instead, Monica immediately reported her concern to the regional manger, Phoebe was immediately suspended and told Rachel reported her. Blowback has ensued. How does my friend deal with this perceived lack of professionalism?

Okay, here are some (possibly) useful details and a more precise question...

(1) Monica is a supervisor and Rachel and Phoebe aren't. Although Monica was only recently promoted and works in a different departments, she felt compelled to pass on the concern even though Rachel had approached her as a friend.

(2) The suspension is technically a medical leave, and thus I assume it is in line with USian labor laws. All the same, the leave is involuntary, indefinite and imposed without discussion of alternatives (light duty, reassigned projects, etc). Phoebe is thus incredibly upset by this.

(3) This happened over a three-day weekend. On Tuesday, Rachel met with the regional manager to discuss how this could have been handled better and more can still be done to help Phoebe. However Rachel felt the regional manager responded by scolding her for complaining.

(4) We work in a heavily regulated industry, and part of the justification for the immediate suspension was the perceived risk of Phoebe's depression would lead to errors that would expose the company to liability. Revealing Rachel as the source of the concern to Phoebe was justified as a means of limiting the risk of Phoebe contesting the medical leave.

(5)To be fair to the manager there have been concerns about Pheobe's performance, and it was rumored that she might soon be told to start seeking another job or risk being demoted.

To expand on the question, Rachel feels this was a needlessly reactionary and unprofessional response. At the very least, the managerial response discourages early reporting of behavioral health concerns. Rachel is now thinking about continuing to push the issue with her manager in order to improve the workplace culture. She is also worried Phoebe feels betrayed by her, and feels this last week has alienated her from the rest of her team. So specifically my ask is: how would you advise Rachel move forward in repairing her relationships with her coworkers and how can Rachel best effect change in her workplace management culture?

Also, it should be mentioned that, politically, Rachel has almost no leverage. However the company has been working its ass off to correct a recruitment and retention problem that has hamstrung it competitively. Rachel and Phoebe leaving would essentially shut down a couple projects they were involved in, and dramatically increase the burn-out of the team-members for every other project they were involved in. I am leaving the company in two months (they know this) so this affects me very little and my leverage is non-existent.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
how can Rachel best effect change in her workplace management culture?

That's really hard. This is the kind of thing that EAPs (Employee Assistance Programs) are good at dealing with. They are confidential and will not disclose details to management without the employee's permission. But they are good at navigating difficult situations like this, and management has to listen to them if they perceive a workplace issue that should be dealt with. Most workplaces of the kind this sounds like have them in place. Rachel should try that route. The problem she should bring them is the general workplace management culture, not the specific case of Paula. Worst case is that they say they can't really help but in that case, she hasn't caused any further damage. Best case is that they've heard similar things from other people at the company, and can go to management with their findings without blowing any individual's cover.
posted by beagle at 12:20 PM on May 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

In my opinion, Rachel should not feel bad for mentioning a colleague's suicidal ideation--statements like, "it would be better if I weren't around" are disconcerting enough that they merit action. In another situation, (in a better organization maybe?) this would have led to a compassionate, private conversation between manager and employee with the manager helping the employee contact EAP herself.

The fact that the manager handled it so poorly is super-unfortunate, but I don't think that's Rachel's fault. Were I Rachel, I would be honest: "I was worried about my colleague and I hope that if I were too depressed to help myself, that someone would reach out and help me too." Her intentions were good, and I would stand by them.

Helping the culture become less stigmatizing and more mental-health and wellness-positive is a long-term goal and a worthy one, precisely for this reason.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 12:40 PM on May 25, 2016 [12 favorites]

how would you advise Rachel move forward in repairing her relationships with her coworkers

By making sure she never, ever discloses private information specific to one of her teammates to anybody else in the company. That was incredibly unprofessional and not called for. Even if she needed advice, she could have anonymized the question to her friend instead of blabbing about something deeply personal that a colleague had said.
posted by xingcat at 12:49 PM on May 25, 2016 [17 favorites]

A manager is *always* going to be required to report things like that. If she hadn't and management had found out, she would have been fired.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 12:56 PM on May 25, 2016 [26 favorites]

By making sure she never, ever discloses private information specific to one of her teammates to anybody else in the company. That was incredibly unprofessional and not called for.

This is not correct for many (most?) organizations in the U.S. I just checked my employee manual--I also work in a tightly regulated industry--and it says to first try to get Phoebe to agree to help (from an EAP) but, in absence of agreement, to choose disloyalty over risk.

Rachel may want to ask management to contact SPRC to request onsite, in-house training for managers in dealing with this situation more rationally next time. I'm shocked that management revealed the source of the suspicion of suicide risk, and I suspect that may have crossed some lines that HR generally should be aware of--especially because Phoebe is still their employee, whether on medical leave or not, so... are they working to ensure that Phoebe is getting medical attention, counseling, follow-up, etc.???
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 1:09 PM on May 25, 2016 [17 favorites]

The problem with disclosing suicidal ideation to other people is that you have to be prepared for them to act upon the information.

When I taught, I was a mandated reporter. I had a student who wrote something that concerned me, so I reported her. She gave me some shit about it, and I reminded her that I did it because I was concerned for her. She knew I did it because I cared about her, not to cause her trouble. We hugged and it was cool.

Another time a guy I knew from on-line posted some disturbing stuff on his blog. I knew he attended a JC, so I called their security department, gave them the blog info and left it to them to decide how to handle it. They called the local police to do a welfare check. According to the blog author it was a huge hassle and the police threatened his dogs....drama llama stuff. We were never close and I'm pretty sure he'll hate me for the rest of his life. And I'm okay with that.

So it can go either way. If, at the end of this, Phoebe gets proper help, then I'm not really too upset about how ham-handedly it was handled. Could it have been better? Yes. But Monica isn't trained in how to deal with this, and probably left it to HR to negotiate everything.

As for blow-back, all Rachel needs to say is, "I was very worried and I did what I thought was the right thing. It's easy to judge in hindsight."
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:26 PM on May 25, 2016 [5 favorites]

It sounds like management did the right thing if there have been concerns about phoebe's performance prior to this incident.

I'm.... confused. It sounds like neither Rachel or Phoebe have realistic expectations.
posted by jbenben at 2:42 PM on May 25, 2016 [5 favorites]

In the meantime, is someone checking on and trying to help Phoebe (perhaps through a referral to an Employee Assistance Program if nothing else)? Because if she was depressed before, being suspended and caught up in this drama is unlikely to be helpful.
posted by zachlipton at 2:54 PM on May 25, 2016 [6 favorites]

On the one hand, without more context this sounds like a really harsh response. But, given certain lines of work I can absolutely see it as the best option -- for example, if the profession here is airline pilots, given the recent example of a pilot committing suicide and taking the plane with him, where it sounds like there was some knowledge of mental health issues but no action was taken. If it's an industry such as this where other people's lives are potentially at stake, I can understand this type of reaction. And Monica's reaction is very understandable -- regardless of friendships involved, she could lose her job for not making a report, especially in a management position. Different type of issue, but in my job, I am a mandatory reporter for sexual assaults, and we've had it drilled into us that by not reporting, we could in fact become personally liable. Especially if there is public safety involved, it's not impossible to imagine there's a similar dynamic here.

Going forward, I would suggest that if Rachel wants to get advice on coworkers, she should probably seek it from outside the company.
posted by rainbowbrite at 2:58 PM on May 25, 2016 [5 favorites]

This is not correct for many (most?) organizations in the U.S. I just checked my employee manual--I also work in a tightly regulated industry--and it says to first try to get Phoebe to agree to help (from an EAP) but, in absence of agreement, to choose disloyalty over risk.

Okay, HR perhaps, but not just some random friend from another department? I don't think so, and forgive me for not believing the HR department has anybody's mental health at top-of-mind.
posted by xingcat at 4:09 PM on May 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

(5)To be fair to the manager there have been concerns about Pheobe's performance, and it was rumored that she might soon be told to start seeking another job or risk being demoted.

This might be kind of the real reason she was suspended. Problematic employees can be difficult to get rid of. It can take forever to document that they need to go. If they want her gone because she really cannot do her job, then this information shores up their case.

Ideally, businesses should be compassionate and humane in dealing with their employees. This is not just some touchy feely thing, it helps breed loyalty and helps employees get past personal hiccups and continue on to do a good job for potentially a long time. But, no, it isn't the employers job to love you and support you through absolutely anything like a long suffering, saintly mother. And if her personal crisis is not only a potential threat to her but to others as well, then suspension may well be not only in compliance with regulatory stuff, it may be the morally correct thing to do. Endangering patients/c!ients/whomever to protect her paycheck and her feelings is not a good thing.

If the organization has the deep-seated problems your Ask is implying, Rachel has a big task ahead of her if she desires to change it and may not be in a position to do much. She could read books about exercising influence since she has limited power and she could try to bring solutions to the table instead of complaints.

But where you have a heirarchy and are near the bottom, it isn't your responsibility and trying to change it may amount to overstepping your authority, which is potentially a fire-able offense.

It is possible that exercising more discretion in the future and trying to reach out to Phoebe and be supportive is as good as this gets for Rachel in the here and now.
posted by Michele in California at 4:26 PM on May 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

This is tough.

Because of my mental health history, when starting my last job I had to be cleared by a psychiatrist. Which while annoying, was just fine.

Generally when one is suspended for mental health there are clear steps the employee can take going forward, usually some sort of evaluation and recommendation for leave or returning to work.

I'm an LCSW, and quite frankly these things should be taken seriously. If the person hearing b the suisidial ideation isn't trained to assess risk it needs to go up the chain and someone found to assess risk. Many people have suisidial ideation as an escape fantasy like some people dream of a month vacation to hawaii. Nothing will come off it but it gives some comfort. Other people it can lead to action and death.

The revealing of the person who reported it is absolutely uncalled for. Also it appears not to be clear what needs to happen to resolve the situation for the woman to return to work. And apperently the risk was not great enough for involuntary commital.

She meant the best, that is all she has to say.
posted by AlexiaSky at 4:41 PM on May 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

If Rachel wants to change management culture she should model the behavior she wants to see by firmly owning a decision she made out of compassion and concern. Given the context you provide about your employer no one should be surprised this is how it played out. Rachel wanted to report Phoebe and lo! Phoebe was reported. Management took actions that allow the employee time to become healthy and protect the company from risk.

I am guessing that the phrase "avoid blowback" means that Rachel wanted to report this to management but avoid Phoebe's suspension or the like. If so, what would be the purpose of reporting this to management? To keep an eye on her? Phoebe was obviously expressing her suicide ideation to multiple people, otherwise it would not have been necessary to "reveal" Rachel as the source. It's possible that management thinks Rachel is complaining because she thinks it was handled "wrong" but is not communicating a vision of "right." That's complaining. If Rachel wants this to be handled differently in the future she needs to create and propose the solution.

An employee who is vocal about the fact that they are contemplating suicide is a risk to themselves, a risk to the company, and - this is a big part of it - a huge source of discomfort for their colleagues. They hurt what is apparently already bad morale, they make employees feel like they can't express their own emotions, and employees may resent manages for failing to take action regarding a poor-performing employee who is obviously ill.

And if Phoebe's upset with Rachel? She can own the fact that she's responsible for this. Rachel had nothing to report but for Phoebe's own actions. If she was voicing suicide ideation as a means of asking for help at work, she got help to the extent that her employer provides it. If she was voicing suicide ideation at work because she's so deep into her illness that she didn't realize it was inappropriate, her employer was not imprudent in deeming her unfit to work.

Finally, you and Rachel both are making a lot of assumptions regarding the circumstances and terms of Phoebe's suspension, and the conversations that Phoebe has had with managers about performance and mental health in the past. That, or Phoebe has true employee data privacy concerns beyond "Rachel repeated something to people that I also said to lots of other people."
posted by good lorneing at 9:07 PM on May 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

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