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16 Things Good Managers NEVER Do When An Employee Has Cancer (Part 1)

Updated: Jan 6, 2023

(This is a two-part series. Eight lessons in each part.)

Being a great manager is hard. Being a great manager when you have a team member with cancer, dealing with loss or depression is complicated. But, contrary to popular belief, there are skills you can learn that will help you navigate a health crisis on your team. (Cause their crisis becomes your team's crisis!)

While I continue to discover compassionate leaders who keep their teams connected and productive in a crisis, I have also discovered what doesn't fly! Below is a list of 16 things a good manager NEVER does when their employee faces a health crisis!

Readers beware. You might find that you don't do these things, but the good news is that now is always a great start. Being a good manager is about progress, not perfection!

Here we go. A good manager never:

1. Avoids Offering Help

This feels like a no-brainer. Helping is, I believe, fundamental to our human nature. Yet, there are stories of managers who shrugged when their employee shared the news of a cancer diagnosis or a death and then pointed the employee to HR. This is common in managers who think there is nothing they can do and their employee's crisis is none of their business. You may tell yourself this lie (and many others) when you feel powerless and don't know where to get support. There is ALWAYS something you can do to help! And if their cancer affects their work and your team, it is YOUR business.

2. Thinks they can do it on their own

This also feels like another no-brainer. You know you didn't become a skilled manager by yourself. You learned by doing AND by seeking advice, feedback, training, and direction from mentors, coaches, your team, your peers, and your boss. Becoming a manager who can manage crises is about knowing that you don't know all you need to know and seeking someone who can help you learn more.

3. Takes It Personally

Good managers know your employee's cancer involves you, but it's about you. Often your initial reaction may focus on your employee's work. When that happens, sentences like, "But what about xx project? If it doesn't get completed, we'll miss the bonus!!" get uttered. Initial reactions are often awkward. But good managers double back and apologize when they know what they've said wasn't helpful or supportive.

4. Says, “If you need anything, let me know.”

Good managers know that it is the least helpful thing to say to anyone in crisis. So they have two to three phrases they use when their friends, coworkers, or team members are dealing with a personal crisis, such as cancer.

5. Has Clear Boundaries

When an employee is affected by cancer, a good manager knows to discuss boundaries with the employee. You know to ask questions about how much information your employee wants to share with the team. What is ok for the team to ask, and what is off-limits? You know how to ask uncomfortable but crucial questions. You understand the importance of setting boundaries and reinforcing those boundaries when necessary.

6. Forgets There's a Plan B

A good manager always remembers Plan B, C, and D, even if those plans are not fully formed! You remember there is more than one way to get work done. So instead of focusing solely on the huge "cancer" tree that seems to be blocking the path, a good manager takes a step back to see the different paths around the tree.

7. Shares Everything That's on Their Mind.

Your employee having cancer is a pain in the butt. (Just speaking honestly here.) And it often creates hardships for the whole team. A good manager knows where to share their thoughts about those hardships, and it's not entirely with the team. When a good manager wants to discuss their hardships, they find trustworthy peers, mentors, or coaches to talk to.

8. Resists Honest Conversations

A good manager feels uncomfortable having hard conversations but has them anyway. You know tough conversations build trust within your team and make it easier to manage them. When it comes to your employee's health crisis or grief, you know frequent workplan discussions are essential. You know that avoiding asking hard questions will cause you to miss opportunities to support your employees and set realistic expectations for the team and yourself.

Being a good manager to your employee in crisis is about taking responsibility for the well-being of your team and yourself while ensuring your team has what they need to be productive!

Part Two of 16 Things Good Managers NEVER Do When Cancer Strikes will be posted next week.

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