Divorce and Separation in the Workplace

Nobody external, be it an employer or interested observer, has any idea what really goes on in another person’s marriage. So the best place is to stay out of it and rest in a no-judgment zone.”

If we assume for a moment that the average employee starts their professional career in their early 20s, then it is safe to say an overwhelming majority, during their time in the organization, will pass through at least three of the four major “life passages” that typically occur from our 20s to our 50s. And it’s important to the employer and employee relationship that the employer is there to support and assist the employee appropriately through these transitions. That is what the great employer does.

What are these life passages?

• Marriage. It’s a wonderful event in our lives, but it is also stressful! And represents massive change in learning to live in a new family situation. Great employers are there to offer tacit support as the transition is made.

• Having children. Also a most wonderful event! But again, it brings to employees huge stresses and change. Time management and work-life balance come more into focus. And again, great employers have a subtle yet important role to play in helping their people make this transition smoothly.

• The death of a parent. Statistically most employees go through losing one or both parents during their working life. It’s the circle of life. No matter the age or circumstance, losing a parent is devastating. My parents have been gone for now for 30 years and I still carry a hole in my chest. Our parents are, quite frankly, irreplaceable. And the best employers take an appropriate role in helping their people navigate this traumatic time.

• Finally, divorce or separation. Nobody gets married expecting to divorce (as least, I hope not). But again, statistically in many markets approximately 50 percent of people will experience a separation or divorce. As a divorcee myself, these are brutal times that can distract the best of employees and cause a “loss of mojo.” The world-class organizations have clear principles in such circumstances.

The great organizations (and people, for that matter) tend to follow the same three-step approach to divorce in the workplace (or among friends and colleagues).

It starts with “no judgment.” Divorce and separation are messy and inherently “gossipy.” People want to ask, “What happened?” or “Who is at fault?” or “Did he/she cheat on you?” Organizations and people of character steer clear of this kind of speculation and remain squarely in a “no-judgment” zone. The fact is, blame is never 100 percent on one party — divorce or separation is a mutual decision of two parties, both sharing the responsibility. Nobody external, be it an employer or just an interested observer, has any idea what really goes on in another person’s marriage. They don’t have the facts and they don’t know. So, the best place is to stay out of it and rest in a no-judgment zone. As a divorced man myself, it was eye-opening to see who among friends and colleagues kept judgment aside and who showed lack of character by immediately rushing to judgment on a situation they knew little to nothing about. Being a supportive person starts with adopting a no-judgment position. This is the only rational and justified — as well as moral — position a person or organization can take.

Engage and say to the person the only sentence you can say. People going through a separation or divorce often feel abandoned when supposed friends and colleagues go silent under the excuse of, “I don’t know what to say.” So they ignore them or don’t speak to them. It leaves people feeling horribly abandoned. Scared. One part of their life is falling apart. Will other parts now start falling apart, too? Divorce is the time people need engagement — the right kind of engagement.

I was lucky when I was in the midst of marital separation and divorce. I was working at the time for a great company in BAT, and one of the best managers of my career, Peter Henriques, called me and wrote me a note when he heard, which was exactly what I needed and totally appropriate. I still keep it:

“Dear Jim. I have heard the news of your divorce. I am very sorry to hear this. Obviously, this is a personal matter and neither me nor the company have any opinion or judgment on this matter. It is your private life and nobody else has a right to speculate on or judge you and your private matters. Suffice to say you are highly valued at BAT, we are here to support you in any way, and I am here personally as not only your manager but your friend if you need me through these difficult times…”

This is exactly what a great company says. What a person of true honor and character says. No matter the circumstances, separation and divorce are a painful time. It’s not a time to kick someone when they are already down. It’s a time to put judgment aside and show some basic humanity and support while respecting privacy. Any other kind of statement, either one of judgment or one of prying into matters not of their concern, is inappropriate and reflects poorly on one’s character.

And this leads me to the final step, which is to “be there.” It’s not about becoming a marriage counselor or trying to get in the middle. But just as Peter told me, let people know you won’t pry and you respect boundaries, but you care, and you are there for them.  Just letting them know means a great deal and is sorely needed. Because, trust me, anyone going through a separation or divorce is encountering not only the pain of the situation, but the pain of having people who they thought had character and supported them, instead engaging in gossip and rushing to judgment. Showing the worst of human nature.

Ironically, how companies (and people) handle such situations like separation or divorce are often “defining moments” of how long-term loyalty is formed. I personally will never forget how BAT and Peter Henriques graciously handled that tough period of my life.  It’s a tough situation. And like all tough situations, true character, both in organizations and individuals, is revealed.  And true character is always rewarded long-term. Karma!