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When Personal Issues Become Business Concerns

A woman writing on a notebook next to a laptop.

Best-selling author Martin Yate, a career coach and former HR professional, takes your questions each week about how to further your career in HR. Contact him at the e-mail address at the end of this column.

I have worked my way up in the past four years to an HR generalist role, with a career path to an HR business partner and potentially HR and employee engagement manager role. I have worked hard to obtain my SHRM-CP and acquired my master's degree in HR management, and I am constantly on the lookout for professional development opportunities, going to local HR events and seminars, and taking free courses online.

My question is personal and involves my family life: I have younger siblings who both have a mental illness. One has had 30-plus hospitalizations in the past 10 years. I also have a parent who has a mental illness and has been struggling with homelessness and difficulty keeping a steady job for the past five years.

I sometimes have to miss work, leave unexpectedly or change my hours. I always notify my manager as soon as possible and bring work home with me, and I have worked weekends, early mornings and late nights to compensate for being out of the office. However, I worry that I will not be taken as a serious candidate to excel professionally due to my personal obligations outside of work, and I worry about having to tell my manager when I need backup or feel a bit overwhelmed.

I do not foresee much changing in my family dynamics, and though I constantly build up healthy boundaries, the cyclical nature of my parent's and siblings' illnesses tend to draw me away from work in some capacity e
very three to five months.

I am sorry to hear about your challenges. You've made some heroic efforts on behalf of your family members. However, if these sacrifices short-circuit your career, then everyone loses. While I think you would probably benefit long term from some personal coaching, I have some advice to get you on the right track, right now.

Your professional track record marks you as a superior performer, but unexplained recurrent absences would concern any manager. They almost certainly are a negative influence on any promotion prospects.

Prepare for Positive Action

When personal issues interfere with business life, they become a business issue. You need to take carefully considered action and talk to your managers about this situation, saying the right things in the right way.

Until you have these issues under better control, I think you need to repress your reaction to drop everything to address your family's needs, partly for your own career protection and partly because it may be in your family's best long-term interests.

But how do you explain such a complex issue? If I imagine myself trying to explain your concerns as if they were my own, there's a good chance I'd break down in the middle of it all. To ensure you do things right and without embarrassment, I suggest a few simple steps that will help you make all the necessary points in a coherent and professional way.

  1. Make a list of managers you might speak to about this. Then prioritize the list, first in terms of their influence and reputation within the company, and then by identifying the pros and cons involved in broaching this topic with each person.
  2. Make a list of all your family members and examples of their issues. Cite examples of how you have dealt with them without detriment to your job.
  3. Start a fresh document that will become a letter. Begin with a sentence about how you understand the importance of keeping business and personal lives separate, but the facts behind your personal matters could affect business and need to be shared for the good of the company and your ability to work with a clear conscience.

Then, succinctly cite the issues you listed in step 2 using one or, at most, two sentences for each.

Writing things down helps crystallize your thinking and gives you the opportunity to tweak your notes until you've said the right things in the right way.

Next, review step 1 and decide on whom to approach. Then take steps 2 and 3 and polish them as a carefully constructed letter. End the letter with a statement along the lines of the following: "I am not asking for any help, although any ideas you have would be appreciated. I just wanted to be transparent about a situation that I realize isn't going to go away, and to reassure you of my ongoing commitment to my job, the organization and my profession."

Revise this over time until it tells a logical and sequential story as succinctly as possible.


Is it possible to ask a senior member of your local SHRM chapter to review your letter and give you feedback? Or another trusted HR professional outside your company? Maybe a professor or classmate from your master's degree program? Or you might share the situation on the SHRM LinkedIn or Facebook groups seeking input.

I would then schedule a meeting with the manager you think can best support you. In the meeting, explain that you have an ongoing problem that needs to be addressed, and hand over the letter. Every point will be addressed with honesty, and that will show you in a positive light. Plus, you won't trip over your tongue, and the manager will have time to read through the whole story in the context of your performance and standing in the company.

A conversation will likely ensue, and you may be surprised at the help that might be forthcoming. At the very least, you will have shown initiative. Another plus is that you can request that the letter go in your personnel file so your transparency is part of your work record.

Have a question for Martin about advancing or managing your career? From big issues to small, please feel free to e-mail your queries to We'll only publish your first name and city, unless you prefer to remain anonymous—just let us know.

Packed with practical, honest, real-world guidance for successfully navigating common HR career challenges, Martin Yate's new book, The HR Career Guide: Great Answers to Tough Career Questions, is available at the SHRMStore. Order your copy today!


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