The Ultimate Employee Threat

It was not exactly what I expected when I gave my first appraisal to a member of staff.  As a customer-facing receptionist she was turning business away with her utterly miserable facial expressions.  No matter what I did to cheer her up, she could never raise even a glimmer of a smile.  There was only one thing for it – we needed to have an official chat.
This was new to me, so I did my research on the best way to do this and asked her to come into my office.  With guidelines in hand I started the discussion.  I thought our conversation was going fairly well until like a bolt of lightening she said “I want to commit suicide.”  Horrified and in my naivety, I tried to get her to tell me what was wrong.  She continued with the ways in which she was considering ending her life. 

I was totally flummoxed.  This response was not in my guidelines and it was long before I studied psychology.  I didn’t know what to do.  I was aware that our conversation was confidential, so I limply said that I would support her in which ever way I could and she went back to reception with exactly the same miserable expression as always, but this time there was a glint in her eye that one could interpret as “now I’m in charge” and she was.
It turned out that she had manipulated me beautifully as she had no intention of trying to take her own life.
What would you do?  I would never have forgiven myself if she had meant to do herself harm and even worse, succeeded.   I erred on the side of caution even though I knew her quite well and felt she didn’t show any indication of the common reasons for suicidal thoughts.  Such as feeling a burden, low self-esteem, social alienation, withdrawal, depression, psychosis or a cry for help. 
As decent human beings, no matter how upsetting at such news, we have to be respectful, listen and acknowledge how the person feels.  It is unwise to promise to keep the conversation secret.  I realize different countries have different laws, but in these situations we need to seek out professional advice.  This includes Human Resources and the medical profession.  We have a duty of care with each member of our team.
Of course this is how it should be, but what happens when we find out that the person who claims suicidal thoughts is in actual fact manipulating us to cover up their own ineptitude? 
Quite frankly we treat them the same way, seek out professional help with HR and medical advice.  Of course, there is never any circumstance on any topic where we truly know what someone else is thinking.  That is the main point of this blog, that no matter what we think we should always err on the side of caution and take any hint of suicide (or other issues) seriously and seek appropriate professional advice.  It is not part of a manager’s job to play pseudo-psychologist and risk getting it wrong, with dire consequences.
We can however, be mindful of the way we communicate and handle all our staff.  Helping everyone feel a valued member of the team, randomly arrange a pizza delivery for everyone at lunch time or an ice-cream delivery.   Take time to listen properly, help them play to their strengths, praise where praise is due.  All leadership skills we know we should implement.  In fact research shows that this leads to increased profits, happier customers and loyal staff.
Think of it this way, if we as business leaders become more mindful of the way we handle our people, we will stimulate all those feel-good neurochemicals in everyone’s brain.  Thus leading to far greater creativity and innovation in our businesses and unknowingly we may even preempt someone talking about suicide, whether as a smokescreen or more importantly if they really mean it.