Understanding the Impact of Divorce in the Workplace
Divorce is a deeply personal experience. And frequently private. Often only a few trusted friends are provided with details. Many others, including family members, are kept in the dark. Your coworkers may be among those who are the last to know.
But sometimes they are the first, without you ever saying a word.
I asked two experts in the field – a human resources expert and an employment law attorney – to weigh in on how they see divorce’s impact on employment, from the perspective of employees and business owners.
Douglas Burtch, Owner and Principal at Burch Law, PLLC in Richmond, Virginia, is a lawyer whose practice includes employment law, representing businesses of all sizes, non-profits, executives, and professionals.
Both Stern and Burtch agree – relationships impact jobs.
Divorce’s Impact on Employees
According to Stern, “While we can’t require people to share what’s going on in their personal lives, we can see the change in their behavior on the job.”
Stern hopes employees feel comfortable with their employers to share what’s going on in their lives. If they don’t feel comfortable enough to share, an employer may only know something is going on simply based on a change in work habits. The change may be significant enough to trigger a performance review.
During such a review, Stern may simply ask, “Is everything OK?”
Sometimes the employee will share. Sometimes they won’t.
If the employee is willing to share, Stern advises, “Give the employee a long runway.” Allow them ample space to talk about their difficulties and challenges to best understand their present struggle.
Some companies provide resources for employees, providing them a safe place to share their troubles and offering guidance on how to navigate those troubles on the job. Every employer will be different. Some workplaces are competitive, while others are collaborative. “It depends on the culture,” says Stern.
If you are an employer wondering how you can help your employees, Stern suggests making these meetings and performance reviews as easy as possible – perhaps meet virtually or early in the day when energy is high.
For employees, Stern also suggests, “Raise your hand and get the support you need.”
For an employer, you can support your employees by allowing them time to see their therapist, for example. “Give the employee some grace,” says Stern. Allow the employee to step back from committees or change their work schedule.
But if the employer doesn’t know what’s going on, there is no opportunity for the employer to give grace. “It’s all about communication,” says Stern.
Stern cautions, however, “Remember, you still have a job to do. You won’t get a complete pass, but hopefully there is some sensitivity to what you are facing.”
Navigating the Legal Landscape
From the lawyer’s perspective, Burtch agrees that a lot of emotion is brought into the workplace.
He also recommends that employees take advantage of resources at their place of work, like Employee Assistance Programs (EAP’s), if available. Using available forms of leave is also an option when emotions run particularly high.
Stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues can – depending on the nature of their severity – trigger protections for the employee, as well as obligations for the employer, under state and federal disabilities and leave laws such as the Virginians with Disabilities Act (VDA), the Virginia Human Rights Act (VHRA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Employers need to know how these laws operate and how they apply to their company. “Not all businesses follow the law and do the right things” under these Acts, according to Burtch.
Divorce’s Impact On Employers
Business owners are no different than their employees when it comes to divorce.
“Business owners who are going through a divorce bring all sorts of personal issues into the workplace that can go wrong on all sorts of fronts,” according to Burtch.
A business owner’s decision-making can be adversely affected under the stress of divorce. “The business owner may feel free to do what they want to do in the workplace, but sometimes it’s not the best decision for the business itself or for the workplace,” says Burtch. For example, do they panic and start moving money? Do they intentionally slow or stall operations or the flow of revenue. According to Burtch, he’s often asked, “How do I protect the business or its revenue from my spouse?” This shift in focus may not be in the best interests of the company or its workforce.
“A lot of divorces start in the employment world,” says Burtch, and this can create tension for both employee and employer.
For example, perhaps a business owner or manager is accused of sexual harassment by an employee and, at the same time, being sued for divorce by a spouse. Different legal teams may be advocating one message in the employment case and another in the divorce case, creating inconsistencies that cause weakness in one case or the other…or both!
Managing Work and Personal Life During Divorce
Employees’ use of their work e-mail address can also cause unintended consequences for both the employee and the employer. Subpoenas can be issued for the company to turn over e-mails sent by employees using company e-mail and servers. Company policies and confidentiality agreements can be breached. Trade secrets can be inadvertently shared. Never intending to cause harm to the company or themselves, employees may not be using their best judgment when using company e-mail during their divorce. In addition, employees may waive attorney-client privileges with their counsel by using work e-mail or discussing their family law legal advice and strategy with colleagues.
Burtch cautions employers to be mindful of employees abusing their leave of absence policy. Some use may be needed and appropriate. But if not, is the employee spending their entire day on their divorce case? Are they still billing work customers at the same time they are focused on personal matters? Is this fraud? Theft of company time? These cautionary tales highlight the advice Stern provided from the perspective of human resources. Hopefully, the employee works for an employer where they can raise a hand and ask for help, understanding what they should and should not do, well before they get into a situation where the words “fraud” or “theft” are used.
On the other hand, employers need to be cautious about being too generous with time or money. Burtch has seen situations where employers lend money to their employees going through a tough time, only to never see the money repaid (employers lending any money should use loan agreements!).
Expert Advice and Further Questions
If you have any questions for the two experts highlighted in this article, please feel free to reach out to them directly.
If you are a potential client and have questions about these and other issues that a family law attorney can answer, feel free to contact us at Evolution Divorce & Family Law, PLLC. We’d be happy to help!
 Divorce lawyers are also concerned about clients moving money as that can raise a number of different issues, which I won’t go into here. They may be the basis of another article in the future! For now, let’s just say it’s best to talk about “moving money” with your divorce lawyer – for business owners and non-business owners alike – before any steps are taken.