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Supporting Employees through Divorce
Nathalie Boutet

Today virtually everyone brings their personal life to work, whether it be through their smartphone or social media. This trend makes it even more important that organizations provide the tools to empower their employees to deal effectively with the workplace impact of family stress, separation and divorce.

Nathalie Boutet
When a family is unravelling, people are overcome with strong emotions including the fear of losing time and connectedness with their children. They have anxiety around their financial obligations and if they can maintain their lifestyle when assets and income are divided. They are confronted by how to cope with increased child care responsibilities when they have to parent alone, as well as how to survive the parenting and financial disagreements that almost always come with a divorce.

Added to this burden are the numerous hours needed to meet with lawyers and other professionals, prepare documents and attend court or negotiation meetings during the legal process. This process typically lasts one to three years on average. That’s if things go well.

If a separation becomes acrimonious, the process can take far longer and the emotional and physical impact on both partners can be much more severe. Over stressed and anguished employees inevitably find it hard to keep up their productivity at work, and can also unconsciously project their stress and anger towards team members and customers.

What support can organizations provide to their employees during this time to promote well-being and minimize the impact on workplace productivity?

Promote healthy separations
Many employees have access to legal services through their Employee Assistance Programs (EAP). This initial exposure to the legal system will likely shape how the divorce will go, yet many lawyers on EAP rosters are not trained in collaborative law and do not suggest either collaborative law or mediation.

Employers should encourage EAP providers to offer collaborative lawyers, to guide employees to the most efficient and respectful processes of collaborative law and mediation from the outset. Human resources personnel and managers who may be in a position to provide guidance to employees should also be knowledgeable about the different legal processes and hand out collaborative law and mediation pamphlets when possible.

There are 5 legal processes available to separating families: (1) collaborative law, (2) mediation, (3) traditional negotiation, (4) arbitration and (5) court.

Collaborative law and mediation are much better suited for resolving marital disputes. In these private out-of-court systems, separating spouses constructively address their personal, business and financial affairs and crafts solutions that reflect their personal wants and needs. Traditional negotiation is when the lawyers are not trained in collaborative law; such negotiations often become adversarial and costly when threatening and aggressive tactics are used.

Arbitration and court are a last resort because these systems are extremely stressful, adversarial, expensive, and they prolong the conflict.

Promote openness by allowing flexibility
Employees are often reluctant to tell their employer that they are in difficulty. Openly promoting flexibility through modified work schedules, sick leave and telecommuting can reduce the stress for the employee while the work still gets done and the team remains productive and engaged.

Privacy best practices
People facing a marital breakdown can feel shame. Some may keep the separation from their employer for fear of being demoted or disciplined if their work performance is impacted. Payroll garnishing, where the employer is required to deduct the necessary child and spousal support from the employee’s wages, may be another embarrassing situation. On the other hand, there are people who need validation and support from co-workers and who do not miss an opportunity to share their private life with them.

The employee should be able to restrict who can know about their circumstances; human resources, their manager or other co-workers. Employers should enact specific rules to ensure the privacy of employees who divulge their personal circumstances.

If there is a history of violence in the family, statistics show that there is a heightened risk of domestic violence around the time of a separation. It may be necessary to work with the separating employee to ensure their safety at the work place. For example, the employer can ask for the employee’s permission to make co-workers and reception aware of the situation and provide a picture of the estranged spouse in case they show up at the office.

Culture matters
A separation or divorce can consume one’s life for several years. With separation and divorce rates that range from 40 to 60%, employers and employees who work together to create a culture that constructively embraces the inevitable challenges can only stand to benefit in the short and long term.

Veteran Family Law lawyer, Nathalie Boutet is a negotiation expert whose practice focuses on keeping divorces out of court. Working alongside thousands of separated families, she knows how to protect businesses from disaster. You can find her at www.boutetfamilylaw.com or nboutet@boutetfamilylaw.com.

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