Article | 11 min read

My heartbreak, your headache. How to handle divorce in the workplace.

By Sarah
Stealey Reed

Last updated August 24, 2021

We sat across the kitchen island, my forever husband and I, chatting about our day. There were periodicals strewn amongst the dinner dishes—magazines nicked from airport lounges, the daily newspaper that’s thrown over our fence, and the indy rags plucked from neighborhood stands. We browsed lazily, flipping through the pages, sometimes pausing to read a sentence or two.

Then I did more than pause; I stopped.

From one Sarah to another

The headline insinuated the article was about Sarah Jessica Parker; the story was bigger than she—it was about a new HBO series, Divorce, which Parker is both starring in and executive producing. And while I am an appreciator of impractical shoes and witty women, it was the dreaded d-word that mostly flicked my interest. Divorce.

While the heartbreak of divorce is largely personal, the brutal blend of change, stress, and high emotion bleeds into everything and everyone that is associated with the divorce. While we might think we leave our divorces closeted at home, that’s rarely the case. And we probably don’t think of them as fodder for an uplifting TV series, but as Parker says in the Marie Claire interview that caught my attention, “…divorce is ridiculous. Sometimes it’s painful, it’s funny, it’s awful, it’s silly. People do ridiculous things to each other, and they are childish.”

While the heartbreak of divorce is largely personal, the brutal blend of change, stress, and high emotion bleeds into everything and everyone that is associated with the divorce.

Yep. Childish. Painful. Ridiculous. Funny. Awful. Silly. I found myself at 37, an executive at an email marketing company, unexpectedly ending my 15-year marriage. In between leading the restructuring of a large customer support team and developing a strategy for our company’s rapid growth, I was also plotting the demise of my first husband’s girlfriend while still retaining legal custody of our corgi.

Behind closed doors

I’ve heard the advice; I’ve given the advice: “leave your baggage at the door.” I left most of mine behind the door, thanks to having an office. And with the aid of a couple trustworthy colleagues, I was able to hide my separation and subsequent divorce—for a time. But my rapid weight loss, frenzied decision-making, and a newfound obsession with running eventually clued my colleagues in that all was not right with me.

“Employees going through a crisis, like a divorce, have a high tendency to start behaving differently—to behave erratically,” says Marilyn, an executive coach. “It can be especially disconcerting when someone in a leadership position takes certain behaviors to the extreme. I’ve seen executives burn out of a company because they spent more time partying, dating, or exercising than they did working. If they had told their peers or boss about what was happening, they may have been able to fan the flames better.”

From the amicable to the dramatic

While not every divorcing employee is going to show up hungover each morning or sob uncontrollably behind their office door, divorce is almost always guaranteed to affect the workplace. On the Social Readjustment Rating Scale, divorce is considered the second most stressful life event, sandwiched between the death of a spouse and the separation from one. So even in a “conscious uncoupling” there will likely be a water cooler or two kicked over.

Divorce is considered the second most stressful life event, sandwiched between the death of a spouse and the separation from one. So even in a “conscious uncoupling” there will likely be a water cooler or two kicked over.

“Divorces are as different as people, says Patti Sarro, a former VP of Human Resources for several Los Angeles-based companies. “Where one person is rendered nearly unable to function, another will completely bury themselves in their work.”

Most experts agree that it is an employee’s productivity that is most affected.

John Curtis from Integrated Organizational Development (IOD) Inc. estimates that productivity from a divorcing employee drops 50 to 75 percent, and that it may take up to five years for performance to rebound.

“The level of productivity will be in direct relation to the amount of emotional energy the divorce requires of the employee,” says Lesli Doares, author of Blueprint for a Lasting Marriage: How to Create Your Happily Ever After With More Intention, Less Work. “Dealing with the dissolution of your way of life will take time. Dealing with attorneys, splitting up property, adjusting to a new lifestyle are all disruptive. If there are children involved, there is the stress of their emotional reactions. All of these are distractions that impair the employee’s ability to function as usual.”

Employee view: Should I tell?

The genesis of Divorce, as Parker sees it is: “How does a divorce affect your life?” and “What does it do to you?” Use these questions to guide who and how you talk about your divorce, particularly as it pertains to life outside the house, and life inside the office.

“I don’t believe anyone should feel compelled to share personal challenges broadly,” says Bassam Salem, an executive advisor and CEO of Mindshare Ventures. “However, given how close professional relationships have become, I think it’d be more than natural to share with close colleagues.”

Sarro agrees, but cautions about oversharing, “There is a fine line between friend and colleague, although it may not feel that way at times. One must keep in mind that what is shared can’t be unheard and you don’t want to share things that could feel very awkward in the future work relationship.”

“There is a fine line between friend and colleague, although it may not feel that way at times. One must keep in mind that what is shared can’t be unheard.” – Patti Sarro

Also consider whether or not your colleagues want to know. Consider how you’d feel with hearing dirt on a colleague—you might be embarrassed for them, or mortified by the specifics (particularly if they are responsible for an indiscretion). And don’t underestimate how divorce details impact another’s perception of you or your abilities. Doares, (who, in full disclosure, was the marriage coach who helped my ex and I uncouple), acknowledges that most people will be supportive until they feel you are taking advantage of them—taking over your workload, covering your hours,

So what’s a girl (or guy) to do? For starters, save the dirty details for a close family member or trusted confidante outside the office. Keep things general at work and only discuss what is necessary.

Opening up in the office

Quite often employees don’t intend to tell anyone at the company that they’re involved in domestic disarray—it comes out accidentally. In episode four of Divorce, Parker’s character Frances suddenly breaks down in a conference room after a meeting. “I’m a private person,” she wails while spilling her guts to an underling she barely knows.

While the stigma around divorce is less than in the past,

By the time I had a conversation with my boss, I was pretty far in, and pretty far gone. The rumor mill was on fire—tasks had gone undone, projects left incomplete, and deadlines in danger of being lost forever. In my desperation to keep my sanity and home afloat, I inadvertently put my career in crisis.

Leader view: Should I ask?

It will happen—whether you manage a large team or a small one, whether you are personally close to your employees or keep it at a “professional distance”—you will notice that an employee is distracted or disengaged. And it won’t be long before the news hits your desk: divorce.

You’re likely tempted to just ask about it directly. But tread carefully here. Unless your employee has confided the news to you personally, go with a “just-the-facts” approach—“I’ve noticed you seem distracted and the date on X project has slipped…” Focus on performance, absenteeism, or other work-related behaviors that are impacting your team.

Sarro encourages leaders to reach out to their HR teams for advice and assistance. “Every divorce touches HR at some point. From a simple address change to the delicate discussion of noticing multiple bruises. I have seen devastation, anger, self-medication, potential violence, financial hardship, as well as the far end of the spectrum of being happy it’s over. HR and the employee’s boss need to collaborate.”

Being a leader is hard; being a leader during an employee’s personal crisis is really hard. While you can’t plan when a colleague or team member will drop a divorce in the workplace, you can be prepared for the inevitable.

Relationship consultant and coach Lesli Doares provides advice for both employees and leaders on keeping the conversations “work-appropriate”.

Be upfront.

Employee: If you need to spend a lot of time with lawyers and counselors, you may want to let trusted colleagues know why you aren’t in the office. Being proactive can keep them from misinterpreting your behavior and emotions, and it may give you a support system.

Leader: While a specific divorce may be unexpected, divorce in general is not. Having a plan is good leadership. The same plan is also useful for disruptions like illness or accidents. It’s easy to let this be “your employee’s problem,” but being proactive will minimize the impact on you, the employee, and the rest of your team.

Be fair.

Employee: Your colleagues aren’t separated from your soon to be ex; you are. Don’t burden them unnecessarily with your work, your hours, and your anger. Be careful not to overshare or expect them to be your therapist.

Leader: Be ready to delegate responsibilities for a set period of time. Don’t let the impact to your team linger, but don’t harshly impose timelines and deadlines that you know your employee can’t meet. Don’t ever tell them, “You are better off” or “Get over it.”

Be careful.

Employee: Talk with your HR representative. They are your trusted resource within the company and the person that can best guide you through your big life and work changes. They will have suggestions on many things, including how to talk with your boss. (This is especially imperative if your corporate culture has little time for anything but the bottom line.)

Leader: Keep the news between you, the employee, and HR. If you do end up administering formal improvement guidance, you need it to be based on performance and not on the divorce.

Be professional.

Employee: Your boss will need to know if you’re taking time away from the office. It’s important to share how you think your work may be impacted (and it most always will be), but don’t excuse away your responsibilities. Bring solutions to how their job or those of your coworkers will be impacted. Also, set up regular check-in times to get feedback on whether this plan is working.

Leader: Being supportive is not incompatible with maintaining professional standards, but part of it. Be open to a workable plan to get you both through this difficult time. Monitor performance and keep the employee in the loop with regular feedback. Make sure your employee knows what is expected and what leeway can be given.

Be good to yourself.

Employee: Good self-care and real downtime during a traumatic event is necessary for adequate functioning. Trying to “push through” will likely lead to failure, and if you need your paycheck post-divorce, you don’t want to jeopardize your job. Be willing to delegate where you can (with the blessing of your boss) to free your energy for the things that only you can accomplish.

Leader: Be good to them. Recognize that more energy may be needed at this time to manage both their professional tasks and the personal issue. Give them the time they need.

You can’t divorce the company from the divorce

Parker’s destiny in Divorce is still up in the air, at least to us viewers. But if her character’s uncoupling is like most—it will be messy, her kids will hate her at some point, and she’ll slip up and be a bit too vulnerable at work again. It’s bound to happen, but the damage can be mitigated.

As an employee, the simple advice is this: be clear with yourself about why and how you’re sharing personal information during professional time. And as soon as you do understand your motives, reassess and think them through again. And again. And again. And remember that your reasonings will change as you move through the separation-divorce-single cycle.

As a leader, your role is to manage, minimize, and never meddle. Salem sums it up simply: “Listen. Empathize. Support. Your employee needs help and it’s the hard times that are your opportunity to show him or her your sincerity.”

As for me? I made many mistakes during that point in my life—both personally and professionally. And while my first marriage didn’t prevail (thankfully), my career did—thanks to sound advice, a good deal of therapy, and an understanding leadership team. And running. A lot of running.