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The kindest gift of all.

The phone rang in my office. It was a vice president returning my call.

"How's our boy Ted doing?" he inquired.

Ted had been a formal, job-performance-based ("hard," in our common parlance) referral to me. Ted, a senior manager, had a nasty habit of throwing rages in front of his subordinates--nothing that honed in on any one individual, just public demonstrations of yelling and desk-banging that set everyone on edge. His behavior had been tolerated in the old days, but no longer.

"I spoke with the therapist working with him," I replied. "He reports that Ted is keeping his appointments and applying himself."

Due to his pattern of rages, Ted had not only been referred to the EAP but also placed on suspension. The onus was on the EAP to recommend when re-entry to the work environment was indicated. We had agreed to a "titrated" re-entry: One week ago, Ted returned to two days of work a week while simultaneously addressing anger management issues in therapy

Now it was my turn to ask the loaded question. "So, how is he doing at work?" I inquired.

"Great so far," replied the vice president. "You know, I was there when he made a public apology to his staff. I think he really has some remorse."

"Remorse is a good sign," I commented.

I decided to call Ted myself. "How are you doing?" I asked.

"Well, why don't you tell me?" he joked. "No, seriously, I think I'm doing fine. That therapist you recommended is good. Do you know that he has me doing homework?"

"Really?" I answered. "What kind of homework?"

"These anger-management exercises that I do on-line," he said. "They're examples of frustrating situations and I have to develop options other than exploding."

"How's work?" I asked.

"So far, so good," he said. "I really do feel crummy about the way I was behaving. I was acting in a way that I would not tolerate in my own children."

"So you think you just might make it through this horrendous experience?" I teased.

"Yeah, even I can still learn a few things," he replied.

His concluding remark was a reference to his first meeting with me. Ted had been a cauldron of shock, anger, righteous indignation, and despair. "How can they single me out this way?" he asked bitterly. "This event [his bossy intervention and the EAP referral] will mar my business career forever."

In a few short weeks, Ted was on a path to making a significant change in his management of anger and, consequently, his manner of treating his staff. Were it not for the intervention, no change would have occurred and the company would have risked a "hostile work environment" charge on account of Ted's behavior.


I reflected on the practice of the "hard" referral. More than a long-held EAP strategy, the hard referral really stands as the EAP's original reason for existence--to provide managers with a means of salvaging a troubled employee (a classic "win-win" situation). It saddened me to think that this career-saving (and, at times, life-saving) method has been subjected to certain erosions over the years.

The first erosion was the unfortunate misinterpretation of the Americans With Disabilities Act by certain companies that discontinued the practice of hard referrals out of fear that doing so automatically created a "perception of disability." If one follows established employee assistance tenets, employees receive hard referrals to EAPs on the basis of job performance problems, not perceived disabilities. The company's concern is performance; the outside care provider addresses any disability issues that may be contributing to job performance problems.

The second erosion stems from a shift in EAP focus away from human resource management to benefits. An employee assistance professional is now often someone who provides a set number of counseling sessions to an individual client referred by a large managed behavioral health care organization (MBHCO). It is often more important to the EA professional to know the name of the referring MBHCO than the name or culture of the client's employer. A widening chasm has developed between EAP practice and job performance evaluation--the domain of supervisors.

A third erosion, although harder to quantify, is reflected in the words of some EA professionals who express a desire to move their EAPs away from case management activities and focus more intently on consultations and "systemic" work. I'm not sure why they consider these goals mutually exclusive.

Years ago, a friend asked me to read Jeffrey Kottler's On Being a Therapist. It might just as well have been called On Being an Employee Assistance Professional. The book does a terrific job of encouraging people to examine their real motivations for doing what they do.

As an EA practitioner and a manager, I am well aware that if you do the same work day after day, year after year, you run the risk of experiencing professional boredom. We all hanker for new and stimulating experiences. I must also ask myself, however, if the distraught client calling me today is any less deserving of my time and energy than the very first client who called me 20 years ago, when I was young and perhaps more eager. I foresee no impending shortage of human beings in pain.

I continue to ruminate on this thing called "constructive confrontation." I still hear concerns about its practice, usually couched in terms of "letting the client live his/her own life." On the surface, it is a generous thought--especially generous to those who can then avoid the discomfort of dealing with uncomfortable issues. But it seems to me that quite often the clearest lessons we learn in life are taught in ways that are unwelcome and even painful. If we do not learn from our day-to-day experiences, we often need the assistance of brave and honest friends and colleagues to help us see our blind spots.

Ted certainly did. At times, I certainly have, too.

Constructive confrontation can be the kindest gift of all. As EAPs have shown from the start, it can save jobs and even lives.

"Ted was doing well. "I love this work," I realized.

Jeff Christie is manager of the Halliburton Employee Assistance Program. He has served as president of the Houston Chapter EAPA, president of the Employee Assistance Roundtable, and a commissioner on the employee Assistance Certification Commission.
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Title Annotation:Constructive Intervention
Author:Christie, Jeffrey P.
Publication:The Journal of Employee Assistance
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2003
Previous Article:SAP networks and resources.
Next Article:The journey to strengthen our profession.

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