What to Do When a Coworker Becomes Erratic

How should you respond when a co-worker becomes erratic?

ByABC News
February 23, 2012, 9:22 AM

Feb. 23, 2012 — -- 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

If a bizarre-behaving colleague isn't someone you're close with, there's a decent chance your offer to "talk" and lend support will be rebuffed. That's when it's time to alert a supervisor to your concerns, King said. (For those who'd rather not get involved, King points out that many employers have a substance abuse policy requiring workers to let management know if they learn someone is using at work.)

Julie Le Blanc, associate director of clinical services at Harris, Rothenberg Intl., which provides employee assistance program counseling to 2,800 companies, agrees with kicking your concerns up the food chain. This becomes imperative if you're worried a co-worker might physically harm himself or others -- for example, if they start talking about suicide or become violent.

"Any time there's any potential perceived or real danger, people have to report it," Le Blanc said. "That's why you have that gut instinct. If it doesn't feel right, go to a person of authority and say, 'It might be nothing, but here's what I saw.'"

Managers: Focus the Conversation on Performance

For the sake of argument, let's assume the person in question isn't a perceived physical threat to themselves or others, just a professional train wreck. Since erratic behavior often goes hand in hand with compromised job performance, and in some cases, decreased morale among other employees, managers can't just turn a blind eye.

When confronting someone you're supervising, Le Blanc advises leading with the uncharacteristic behavior the person has been displaying. (A direct "I've noticed you coming in to work 90 minutes late and wandering the halls aimlessly this past week. Is everything OK?" should do the trick.) Don't chastise, penalize or guess what the problem might be. Instead, Le Blanc said, tell the co-worker you care and want to support her but that you're worried a problem at home or at work is affecting her ability to do her job. If appropriate, remind them of the relevant benefits your company offers -- counseling, employee assistance hotline, paid time off, short-term disability and the like.

After conferring with her HR department on how to proceed, Gabor Hawkins had a conversation like this with Miranda, her employee who'd been foundering after her medical crisis.

"We talked a long time," Gabor Hawkins said. "I did not make it personal. It was all based on her job duties and her not meeting them. I told her I thought she would want to know so she would change. There were tears and she knew her job was on the line. I was firm, but she knew I had her back and was there to help."

For the next month, Gabor Hawkins closely tracked Miranda's output and met with her weekly to ensure she was on top of her deadlines.

"Within a week or so, she became the employee that she was before," Gabor Hawkins said. "I think it helped that we had a good relationship. She knew I wanted her to succeed. And I knew she could."

This work is the opinion of the columnist, and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance writer and former cubicle dweller. Her books include My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire and The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube. Follow her at @anti9to5guide.