HR: Achieving The Right Balance of Head vs. Heart

Human Resources and Balancing Head with Heart

A few years ago, I learned the importance balancing head with heart when serving employees. Over time, I would engage a particular employee in polite banter. We commiserated on how tired we were, counting down the days to retirement.

The banter turned more meaningful when one day the employee stated that the general discomfort he had experienced was getting worse. I went into Human Resources mode asking “Do you need an accommodation, time off, FMLA? Have you taken time for self care or scheduled an appointment with your primary care physician?” I encouraged him to take full advantage of his employee benefits and told him to keep me informed – all of the mundane but necessary questions that should be asked under the circumstances.

head v heart

Shortly afterwards, I learned he had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. One day he came into my office and told me that his cancer had progressed to stage four. To be closer I got up and took a seat at his side and extended my hand. He gripped it tightly and began to cry. Something he had not felt safe enough to do until that moment; and I wanted him to feel safe to use that time doing whatever he wanted. As I watched this employee crumble, my heart went out to him. As tempting as it was to react with heart, in that moment I knew he would be best served if I also used my head.

As I comforted him with words of encouragement, my head filled with questions:

  • What tools does HR have to support him?
  • What medical plan does he have?
  • Does he qualify for FMLA?
  • How much PTO does he have?
  • What is our short-term disability elimination period?

remote working

I told the employee to focus on himself and family, and to let me take care of the head stuff. I assured him that I would be there as a resource, cheerleader, and confidant. Shortly afterwards, he called back following his appointment and advised me that he was given less than a year to live. Now it was time to switch back to thinking with head.

I engaged the HR Benefits team to check on FMLA eligibility, determine PTO balance, instructed them to ensure that employee had all the necessary paperwork he needed to start his FMLA paperwork along with short-term disability process and qualification. I confirmed what medial plan he was participating in and provided deductibles, copays and connected him with his medical insurance carrier to confirm provider participation and coverage so that the employee would know how to plan.

The employee would eventually return my office months later a shell of his former self. He looked at me and said, “the Dr. says I’ll likely not see Christmas”. To hear my employee speaking with courageous resolve of his own impending death was profound. The employee was concerned about finances during these final months and I still needed to balance head with heart for his sake. I advised the employee about his life insurance and confirmed that our company had an Accelerated Death Benefit that would allow terminally ill employees to take proceeds from his life insurance prior to his death to help cover expenses, I also, reminded the him of his retirement funds which could be accessed without penalty due to his age, both were things he had not considered. I engaged our Employee Assistance Program (EAP) representative to offer other end of life planning services that might help ease the transition for him and his family.

With the meeting coming to a close we both stood. The employee said, “Your support has been a blessing” I haven’t been able to think straight”. The HR team had made sure the employee had all the resources necessary to follow-up with the life insurance retirement plan and EAP vendors. When we shook hands, he wouldn’t let go, I allowed him that safe place to cry again. Before we parted I told him to call me anytime day or night with if he had questions or simply needed to talk”.

I retreated back to my office closed my door and created my safe place to reflect and feel, hoping that with the right mixture of head and heart I had provided all the appropriate Human Resources tools and personal support and compassion to my employee as he approached the ultimate Life Event.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not of The HR Gazette or its team members.

Author: William J. Wiggins

William is a Human Resources Leader out of Seattle who prides himself on providing sound direction and building collaborative relationships with leaders around Employee Engagement. His professional passion is helping partners manage their human assets with respect all things HR, including Employee Benefits, Onboarding, Diversity and Inclusion, and Employee Engagement, and EEO compliance. William has held positions in Health & Welfare Sales and Consulting, Employee Benefits and Human Resources serving healthcare, consulting, and retail organizations to include Mercer Human Resources Consulting, Williams-Sonoma, Inc., Kaiser Permanente, and Blue Cross Blue Shield. “I believe that “a true Human Resources leader is like a wizard that works feverishly behind the curtain pulling all the necessary levers to make sure that our human capital and organizations remain protected, compliant, and progressive”.

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