How to Manage an Employee with Cancer Guilt-Free


"Now is not a good time for you to have cancer!" That is what I wanted to say to a friend who shared their cancer diagnosis with me via voicemail back in April.


I had a lot of new work that month. I had launched the first of three Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEI&B) workshops. I co-facilitated a four-part DEI&B with a different company.

I had just started consulting as an interim HR Director. I gave my first keynote speech and was interviewed by The Mother Company on empathy, grief, and showing up for friends and their kids. (You can listen HERE)


It was a hectic month, and I didn't feel like I had enough energy or compassion to give. And I wanted to say, "Now is not a good time. Please call back in May or, better yet, June. "


This is a usual reaction for many managers when their employee announces they have cancer. (Hopefully, it's only an internal reaction!) A manager's initial few thoughts often drift towards how the cancer diagnosis will affect them, their team, and their projects.


But when a manager thinks that way, many times, guilt sets in immediately. A manager thinks, "I shouldn't think that way." And that is where the trouble begins.


It is a perfectly normal response.


Really, it is. It is normal (and human) to think about how someone else's diagnosis affects you. Let's be honest; you are the most important person to yourself. But it's not the thought that gets us into trouble; it's the judgment of the thought that drives unhelpful and often hurtful behavior towards an employee affected by cancer.


As David Kessler aptly pointed out in a podcast last year, "judgment requires punishment, either for yourself or another person." At work, that means you are judging yourself or your employee, which can lead to being too lenient or excessively harsh and uncaring towards your employee. Either way, not acknowledging your judgment becomes a lose-lose proposition.


So, what is one to do?


First, acknowledge your thoughts. (But not to the employee with cancer!) Simply acknowledging the thought you had will cause it to lose its power and decrease its ability to drive unwanted behavior. Sometimes that acknowledgment is to laugh out loud at your thinking!


Second, forgive yourself! You are human. Judgment is wired in us. A bad thought does not beget a lousy person. Action driven by a negative thought does make us feel like bad people. In the forgiveness, see the opportunity to do and be better.


Third, get educated. Talk to your employee affected by cancer. Ask how they think their treatment will affect their work. (Do not assume anything!) Let them know that you want to collaborate with them. Share your concern for their well-being and that of the team. Become their partner, not their judger!


After I thought, "Now is not a good time!" I laughed out loud! I mean, is there a good time for anyone to have cancer?


I called my friend back. We had a delightful conversation. I listened a lot (which he and I needed), and we laughed a lot (which he and I needed).


Then, I got back to work. I swear it was more productive and happy than I was before. Connecting has a way of doing that for all of us.


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