A reader writes:
I work for a company with multiple offices nationwide. Our team is based in City A, but we have one employee (Sally) who works remotely at our offices in City B. For the past 12 months, we have required Sally to travel to our city every other week for an overnight stay. The reason we do this is so she can meet clients, attend meetings, and generally build interpersonal relationships with the team (we work in the sort of industry where relationships are really important). We pay all her travel and expenses, and when we first suggested it last year she said it would be completely fine. We don’t live in a very big country, so logistically it isn’t that big of an undertaking (although she does still need to stay overnight because the two cities are just far enough that she can’t comfortably commute back and forth in one day).
However, since the very beginning it has been … difficult to get her to stick to the trips. There has been sickness, unforeseen circumstances, and a series of increasingly weird-sounding family emergencies. I’ve tried to be flexible, but it’s getting to the point where we’re losing money on the hotel rooms (because she’s cancelling last-minute), and we can’t make plans for certain things because we can’t rely on her actually being there.
But here’s the thing. I scheduled a 1-to-1 with her to try and understand what was going on. The excuses had gotten so outlandish that I suspected there was more to it, and I wanted to open a conversation about it. She ended up confiding in me that her spouse isn’t “comfortable” with her spending one night away, because he “gets anxious that she’s not actually working.” I’m not entirely sure what he thinks she is doing, but I suspect there’s a sizable trust issue there.
She didn’t outright say he was abusive/controlling, but she said enough that I have serious alarm bells going in my mind. I have experience of friends being in abusive relationships, and a lot of what she said by way of justifying his behavior was familiar to me. As a side note, I have noticed he calls A LOT when we’re in the office working or at client dinners. She gets very anxious if she misses the call or is unable to answer.
All that said, I don’t really know what to do about it. I don’t really want to say she doesn’t have to do the trips just because her spouse says so; I feel like it’s leaning into (and justifying) some seriously worrying behavior. But the last-minute cancellations are starting to become very difficult to manage within the team, and I don’t know how to balance explaining that to her without looking unsympathetic to her situation. I also don’t know if it would be appropriate for me to point out that this is some seriously controlling and worrying behavior, and to offer help if she needs it. I feel like it would be overstepping the mark, but I can’t quite bring myself to ignore it altogether.
First things first, please read this advice to a manager whose employee was being abused by a partner. Follow all of it, especially about the policies you should have for your workplace (not just for Sally, but for others who may be in unsafe situations at home too) and the resources you can offer.
You could also say to Sally, “I’m really concerned by what you told me. That doesn’t sound like a safe situation for you, and I want you to know that we have resources to support you if you need them.” Depending on her response, you might offer referrals to organizations that can help (including an EAP if you have one and local crisis center info), protected leave if your organization offers it for people in crisis situations, a phone or other technology that her husband can’t track, and security measures if she does visit your office. As that previous post talked about, you do need to be sensitive to coming on too strong here — take your cues from Sally, but at a minimum name that what she described doesn’t sound normal or safe and try to connect her with resources if she lets you.
From there, you’ve got to deal with the practicalities around her job. What would you do if Sally were unable to travel for a different reason — if she were a single parent with little kids, or had a health issue that made travel difficult, or otherwise just couldn’t do it logistically? How much of an obstacle would it be for her success in the job? If the answer is that it’s not ideal but you’d make it work … does it make sense to mentally move Sally into that category now? (It’s possible that it would get more workable once you’re not losing money on last-minute cancellations and being unable to plan around whether she’ll be there or not.)
But if not traveling would truly prevent her from doing the job at the level you need it done at, then you’ve got to have an honest conversation with Sally and lay that out. You could say, “I hear you about travel being difficult. I want to be up-front with you that it’s really crucial to being able to do this job well. We do need you to travel because of XYZ, and the last-minute cancellations are wreaking havoc on our budget and ability to plan. Knowing that, what makes sense from here?” Be honest, too, about what it means if her answer is no.
Alternately, is there a middle-ground option, like doing fewer trips as long as she commits to the ones that she does schedule? Is it the kind of situation where she could stay in the job without traveling but it would hold her back in regard to promotions/raises/other things people care about? She might be willing to make that trade-off, so be honest about that if it’s an option too.
Ultimately, be honest and open about what you need, creative about how you both might be able to make it work, and clear you’re not judging her — because the less you judge her, the more likely she is to seek help if she needs it. (For more on that, read this.)
You might call your local equivalent of the National Domestic Violence Hotline to get their advice too (in the U.S., that number is 800-799-7233).