What to do when an employee's family member contacts you
Occasionally, a family member will contact a supervisor, manager, or HR department to ask about an employment-related matter for a loved one.
Depending on the situation, the family member could be well-meaning, or just plain nosy. Either way, being contacted by a family member via call, text, email, or in person should raise a few red flags.
In some cases, an employee will actually ask a family member to contact a supervisor, manager, or HR professional to advocate on their behalf. This may be because the employee doesn't understand an employment matter or doesn't feel able to handle a difficult situation or coworker. It may also be the case that the employee wants to avoid direct communication with the employer for some reason.
Family member involvement in work issues seems to occur most often when an employee feels vulnerable at work — or when the family member believes the employee is vulnerable at work. Such situations may include an employee who:
- Is having a conflict with someone, or feels bullied or harassed at work,
- Is being disciplined for a work offense,
- Is being terminated,
- Has a serious health condition that interferes with the ability to go to work or perform successfully,
- Needs or is on medical or other protected leave from work (e.g., FMLA leave).
Employer representatives most at risk for engaging in improper communications with employee family members include:
- Rookie supervisors or managers who are not familiar with proper boundaries,
- Those who are being overly nice, or are sympathetic to the employee or family member,
- Those with a personal connection to the family member, or
- Those in a tight-knit community where 'everybody knows everybody' making the boundaries somewhat blurry.
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When is it OK to talk to an employee's family member?
Socially.Of course, socializing with family members of employees is OK — as long as the topics discussed have nothing to do with the employee's employment.
Emergencies.If the employee is a no call/no show for work, or has an accident, injury, or illness at work, then it's fine to get out the Emergency Contact form the employee completed and contact that designated person about the emergency issue. Keep the conversation limited to the emergency at hand. When the emergency has passed, so has your permission to communicate with the employee's family member.
Parents and guardians.You can usually talk to a family member about employment matters when the employee is a minor, or when an employee has been deemed mentally incompetent to handle their own business or monetary affairs.
Incapacity.You may talk to a family member when the employee is incapable of communicating. Such circumstances may include when an employee is in a coma, in surgery, missing, or in jail. Note that communication challenges such as an employee who does not speak English, is illiterate, or is non-verbal require a better solution than simply getting a family member to translate/communicate.
With permission.Employers can talk to an employee's identified family member about employee issues if a court or the employee has given permission for that family member to do so.
Key to remember: In general, keep communications about work-related issues between employer and employee. Be kind, yet firm, when declining to communicate with an employee's family member and then let the employee know you've been contacted by the person. Make it clear that you will communicate with only the employee about employment matters.
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