What to Do When a Coworker Becomes Erratic

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We're used to seeing celebrities go off the rails. They appear in the tabloids looking haggard, emaciated or as if they forgot the rest of the world wears pants in public. They show up at awards shows staggering or slurring their speech. They cancel performances and interviews with little to no warning. They have an intimate relationship with the Los Angeles County court system.

But what about when the person careering out of control works down the hall from you? What if it's not red-carpet events they're botching but staff meetings and deadlines? What if they've taken to berating clients, passing out at their desk or doing handstands in the conference room? What's your obligation to step in when a once reliable colleague can now best be described as erratic?

Hallie Gabor Hawkins, a financial educator who used to work in the mortgage industry, was in this position a few years ago. A first-rate employee on her team (let's call her "Miranda") had a health scare that caused her to miss three weeks of work. Upon Miranda's return to the office, the formerly dependable, agreeable employee became an unreliable, combative mess.

"It was like she was a different person," said Gabor Hawkins, who's based in Charlotte, N.C. After her medical crisis, Miranda didn't just have trouble getting to work on time or meeting her job's multiple daily deadlines, Gabor Hawkins said. She became defensive when confronted about her sloppy work and took to blaming others for it. As a result, Gabor Hawkins said, "Our staff was feeling put upon to always clean up her mistakes."

Professionally, Miranda was circling the drain. And she was dragging down the department with her. As Miranda's manager and ally, Gabor Hawkins knew she had to step in. But how?

To answer this question, I consulted with a handful of business leaders and workplace counseling experts. Their top suggestions follow.

Peers: Offer Support, Not Judgment

A co-worker's sudden, bizarre behavior can stem from any number of reasons. In the past few weeks, I've heard stories from readers about colleagues with erratic personality changes brought on by stress, burnout, addiction, mental illness, a medical condition and grief over a loved one's death.

You might have a hunch about what's causing a workplace pal's erratic behavior -- say, if they recently lost a family member or have been coming to work with alcohol on their breath. But accusations and judgments about how they're trashing their job won't amount to much. Instead, what's required is a heaping dose of compassion, said Alan King, president and COO of Workplace Options, which provides companies with work/life benefits and employee assistance program services.

When confronting a downward-spiraling office friend, King suggests saying something like, "'Are you OK? You seem to be off your game.'" Recognize that you may not be able to help them singlehandedly, especially if addiction or mental health problems are involved. You can, however, point them toward your company's employee assistance program or other counseling resources, King said.

When to Call in the Cavalry

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