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I have one developer under me (I am a team lead of a group of 10 developers), who consistently comes in late, and worst of all he always looks tired when he is working. There were quite a number of occasion when I found him asleep on his desk.

I strongly suspect that he either has a part time job going on the side, or he suffers serious personal problems. I want to improve his performance and I want to know, first and foremost, whether his private life has been interfering with his work. But should I ask him about his private life? Can a boss ask about his subordinate's private life and get a truthful answer?

I am based in Singapore and as far as our company culture goes, asking around other people's private life is frowned upon, but some of us still do this.

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do you practice regular 1:1s with team members? –  gnat Dec 13 '12 at 10:59
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@gnat: I'm glad someone else has started throwing that article around with abandon. –  pdr Dec 13 '12 at 11:19
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@pdr few months ago, I even wrote a whole lengthy answer preaching it. At Programmers.SE, I am promoting this article for more than a year ;) –  gnat Dec 13 '12 at 11:25
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This sort of problem is one of the reasons consistent 1:1 meetings are so important, because this question is a complete non-issue if you have a weekly (or biweekly, even) meeting with each of your reports. –  enderland Dec 13 '12 at 16:00
    
Are you sure he hasn't just placed the doc pages under the desk and is learning by osmosis by laying his head on it! –  itcouldevenbeaboat Feb 18 at 19:45

9 Answers 9

up vote 28 down vote accepted

Not usually no. Only when their personal life affects their work should you.

However, you shouldn't ask about his personal life straight out. You can mention in a 1:1 that he is asleep often and always looks tired and if there is anything you can do to aid him with his work.Although if someone doesn't want help then it is unlikely they will tell you what you could do to aid them. Some people like to solve their own problems regardless of the consequences.

At this point you need to talk to him about how his work is slipping and you can encourage him to work on the underlying issues, if he then asks for help that is fine, but outright asking about personal life is intrusive, manage him from a work perspective certainly though.

As a manager you should be working on removing obstacles that stop your team from being effective. You should be managing their work to make sure it is completed, on time, effectively to a good quality. You should be monitoring their progress and aiding them in self improvements. Only when their personal lives impacts their work and becomes an issue do you bring it up, e.g late night partying meaning they are always late etc.

It's important to be able to separate work life and home life, not everyone can do this on their own, while it is not the managers responsibility to do so it is a good way to show the respect you have for your employees by offering a hand. The respect you gain as a manager for that can be invaluable.

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You have to be really careful about enquiring "as a friend", because even outside a work environment you are still this person's manager. If he doesn't want to talk about his personal life he is still going to find it awkward to say "no" to you. If he decides to formally complaint hat you have been prying into his personal life, the excuse "but I did it after work" isn't going to cut it. –  DJClayworth Dec 13 '12 at 14:58
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You might want to reword paragraph three, then. in any case I think having a serious talk about how their work isn't up to standard, and then inviting them for a drink as friends, is going to be problematic. –  DJClayworth Dec 13 '12 at 15:10
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The only thing I would add is that before bringing up a potential performanc eissue with an emplloyee, as a manger, you might want to get HRs advice on excatly how you should handle it. Sleeping onteh job can be a firing issue if not corrected and you need to make sure you handle the process of correcting his performance in whateverway your HR recommends. If you haven't had to correct an underperformer before, it is usually best to make sure you are doing things the way your company wants you to. –  HLGEM Dec 14 '12 at 19:24
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@RhysW - I'd keep it out of the party and in the office. The issue of falling at work asleep is a serious performance issue and not a party topic, and you want to raise it in a venue where will be taken seriously. At parties, keep the talk to the positive stuff. –  bethlakshmi Dec 21 '12 at 17:14
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@Rhysw Sounds good to me ;-) –  Jan Doggen Feb 18 at 8:41

How you can approach this depends a lot upon how you currently interact with your team.

I have a roughly 50/50 mix of introverts and extroverts as direct reports, and encouraging some degree of social rapport has been beneficial in terms of the wider professional interactions that they need to have, for example in meetings.

I generally chat with all my team at some stage during the week - asking how their weekend was, or "Hows it going?" - when I arrive, leave, get coffee, waiting for a meeting to start and so on.

Responses vary from "Good, thanks" to a long description, but even the most introverted from time to time wants to share something, and its not always about their current work challenges.

This has set the tone for the team culture I aim to promote; we don't all have to be friends, but positive social interactions certainly help.

Even this small level of "social icebreaking" means that more difficult conversations are easier to have, and at an earlier stage, without it seeming like prying on either side.

In this case, however, I would suggest there is a serious performance issue to address. If they are falling asleep at their desk, then they are too tired to do their job effectively.

As a line manager it is well within your job description, and part of your professional obligations to the rest of the your team, to have a conversation with the team member over this issue.

The situation here is a little different to your previous question, as you have a concrete example of inappropriate behaviour (being asleep on a number of occasions), and easy to measure metrics (being at work, on time)

That said, personally I would still approach this in similar way, in a one-on-one, as the previous issue (link above):

"You seem really tired, and its impacting on your work here. Is everything okay?"

The difference in this case is, however, that you are having a "performance management" conversation based around negative feedback. The employee is acting inappropriately, as opposed to simply not delivering as expected, and if you don't take action you are condoning what they are doing.

Edit:

As a final point, I would add that the "performance management" aspect of team leadership is probably one of the most difficult skill areas to grow, especially when dealing with underperforming staff. As with any skill, training and practice both help significantly, however its likely there will always be challenges that stretch your professional capabilities.

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It is generally considered bad to enquire directly about someone's personal life, especially if you are their boss. This is because it is frankly none of your business. However when someone's work has been unsatisfactory it is your place to do something about it.

Start by enquiring of HR whether there is anything you should know about this employee. The emplyee may have shared something with them but not with you. HR may not be able to share details, but they may be able to say "this person has talked to us about something in their private life, and steps are being taken to address it".

Talk to the person about their performance. If they have been found asleep on the job tell them that isn't acceptable. Tell them your observations, that they always look tired. Ask them if there is anything they would like to share with respect to this. if they choose to share then no problem. If you suspect they have a part time job, and there is a company policy about that (such as needing approval, or that it mustn't interfere with performance), remind them about that policy. Make it clear that you are there to help them give good performance, and that you may be able to help them with any issues they have.

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+1. Focus on behavior and specific expectations. Does it really matter why he is not performing up to expectations? Ask if the employee can come up with a plan to improve, and how you can help. However, it is appropriate to share your concern for this person's well-being and offer your support. –  JAGAnalyst Dec 21 '12 at 18:04

should I ask him about his private life?

Not directly, but mention that you have concerns about his performance at work. Coming at it from this angle would seem more appropriate to find out if there are any medical issues or other things that may be worth noting here. This does presume that Singapore is similar to North America.

Can a boss ask about his subordinate's private life and get a truthful answer?

This depends a great deal on the relationship, in my opinion. In some cases, yes though most of the time I'd probably say not. The issue with a truthful answer would be the rather large can of worms that it would open.

The possible health issues, side jobs and other factors here lead to more questions as well as possibly being judged or worse from a superior which is likely the big fear in bringing it up. I wouldn't want my boss knowing all of my health issues and where I stand with each of them as that is rather private information that more questions can get difficult to answer like, "When will you get better?" in regards to conditions like anxiety or diabetes that aren't likely to be cured but rather well managed where even for my closest of friends, I doubt I'd keep them up to date on how I'm doing 24/7 with it.


I agree that health issues shouldn't be directly asked. However, I'm trying to explain why a truthful answer isn't likely to happen and why I as a subordinate would be uncomfortable talking to my manager about these issues.

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A boss should avoid directly asking about health problems, this can lead to possible problems, and could result in being unable to let the person go because of the poor performance because of health condition that surfaces that makes the person disabled. The simple solution to this problem is to attempt to discover the reason the person is late and their performance is decreasing, set goals with that person to resolve those problems, and if those goals are not meet come up with a "end game" plan ( i.e. let that person go ). –  Ramhound Dec 14 '12 at 12:57

No, you shouldn't directly ask about an employee's personal life.

If you stop to think about it, that's not really the question you want to ask, anyway. You-as-manager don't really want to know why his performance has suffered - you want to know how you can help, and you want the behavior to change. (You-as-human can be curious, but you're wearing your Manager Hat right now).

So, get them in a room 1:1, and put it on the table. You're lucky that you have a nice obvious management problem - they're falling asleep at work. This isn't acceptable, something needs to change. What's the plan, and how can you assist in it?

That puts the ball into the employee's court, where it belongs. If they're moonlighting, you've just given them the heads up that they need to either jump or dial back the work. (And they may not even admit to doing it, but they'll get the message regardless). If there's something they need help with (maybe his household's hours have changed and they need to change shifts to accommodate - as anyone in the same house as a newborn can attest), then you've given them permission to ask. If they're comfortable enough to confide in you, they'll talk.

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No. Focus on the outcomes first. You need to give direct and immediate feedback about these behaviours. Along with that, you need to establish consequences. If this person cannot meet these requirements, you can consider making adjustments. Usually, someone will let you know that there are some external forces (i.e. personal problems).

Maybe you can adjust this person's schedule to come in later and work longer. I'd rather have someone come in an hour later, ready to work for a full-day, than someone struggling to get in "on time" at the expense of the rest of the day's production.

Also, suggest taking a nap somewhere out of the way during lunch hour. It is bad for morale for one person to be sleeping around everyone else who is working.

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I had someone working for me whose performance suffered, and who at the same time had some significant changes in appearance (let's say things like wearing very different clothes, taking a lot less or a lot more care with hair, that sort of thing) and changed the topics of conversation with me and other coworkers too. Clearly something was going on.

I've had other staff in the past who've come to me and said "my marriage is falling apart" or "my spouse has been laid off and money is super tight" or "my child is seriously ill" and I've given those people all the support (including not asking a lot of them at work) they wanted or needed. But this person didn't come to me.

When I needed to give a specific reprimand to this person, I gently said something like

This isn't the first time we've had a problem recently, and something seems different lately. Is there some way I can help or make things smoother here?

I got a "no, I have no idea what you're talking about" kind of answer with an "I am offended you would even ask that" vibe and I never asked again. The employee left for another job soon after that. You can't help those who won't participate in the helping, and I don't see how "no, really, look at yourself, is it your marriage? Or is someone sick?" is going to help. Stay focused on what the person is doing, and leave issues of Why aside unless the employee volunteers them.

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The answer depends a great deal on the culture and norms where you are, so consider all of these answers from your point of view and the framework of your culture and society.

Generally speaking it's not good to dive in to an employee's personal life. But when their work is impacted you may not have much of a choice. But you must handle it delicately.

Here's how I'd approach it:

  1. Check with HR. As already pointed out they may already have some knowledge of the issue.
  2. Depending upon your working environment you may be able to discreetly inquire of co-workers/friends for more information. This could be very risky so tread lightly if at all.
  3. Have a quiet conversation with the employee.

Don't turn it into a big deal by calling them in to the office. I'd suggest inviting them out to lunch so you can talk away from the office; less formal more friendly environment. (Assuming that wouldn't be a big red flag to everyone.)

Depending on the employee and your relationship, you may learn everything you need to know without direct questions or comment. But I'm guessing you'll need to ask some discreet questions. If they aren't comfortable talking with you about it, don't push for answers - you can make sure that they know you're there if they need to discuss it. Remind them that you have an open door policy.

Worse case you'll have to formally reprimand them. Hopefully you can reach out and get to them before that happens.

If the employee is willing to talk to you about the problem you more than likely will need to get HR involved. They should have the resources and skills to navigate these types of family problems and of course they know how deeply they can get involved.

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There might be several possible reasons for your employee being late to work or sleepy. It may or may not be under their control. One example of where its not really under a person's control is chronic illness such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS, which I have), GERD, IBD, Chrons Disease etc.

If health is the reason, then you could ask him "How are you doing today" ? First,be friendly with him, not just for the sake of it. Nobody tells you about themselves if you never talk to them. Maybe he has health or family problems which might not be much under his control. Worse, he could have some unhealthy or bad habits.

In case you want to know about IBS here is my post - How to request an accommodation for a debilitating illness when I don't want to disclose the nature of the illness

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