Q: I am a psychotherapist with a client who has had an ongoing problem that involves his workplace and boss. I hope you can tell us what the proper protocol is in this situation. My client, "Jim," took a part-time job as an assistant to an elderly man who handled public relations for nonprofit events. Jim was interviewed and hired by one of the man's sons (none live near their father). Jim was hired for his organizational and computer skills and he and the elderly man were to work together in the man's office. Early on Jim realized that his boss was forgetful about details — sometimes he had dates wrong, did not bill correct amounts to the few clients he had, and did not keep to the hours that Jim and his son had agreed to.
Jim and I talked about the issue from several perspectives: his wanting to keep the job until he found something better, his boss's defensiveness when Jim corrected him, and the ethics of whether Jim should tell the son about the father's cognitive slippage and incompetence to now do his job. We addressed whether his boss's children, since they did not living nearby, even knew that their father was experiencing these problems and whether Jim should tell them. His boss was generally a difficult man, so Jim felt unable to discuss the situation with him. Our question is whether Jim should alert his boss's children to the father's cognitive issues or just let it go and move on to a new job.
A: You were interviewed and hired by the man's son, so this alone may signal that there is some sort of problem. Considering the various possibilities, the man may have told his son he was too busy to interview candidates, or that he hadn't interviewed people in a long time and wasn't aware of the employment laws anymore, but the likelihood is that the son knew something more and he offered to do it for him when his father said he needed help. Whatever the situation is, being interviewed by the son opens the door for you to contact him. Talking to the son may even ease the pressure and difficulties you've experienced in the job.
When you speak to the son, don't use words such as "incompetent." Tell him you would like to explain some of the behavior you've encountered working with his father and describe each situation. Tell him you'd like to handle it the way the son sees fit. If the son acknowledges he's aware of the situation, he may ask you to handle it by simply correcting each error as you find it, and to report to him if his father seems to be declining further in abilities. If the son is defensive and denies the situation you are describing, politely back out of the conversation and start job hunting.
Karen R. Koenig, a licensed psychotherapist (Sarasota, Fla.) offers this professional advice when communicating with a person with failing faculties: "We need to adjust how we say things when speaking to different types. We may modify our syntax and vocabulary to match someone's age group, education level, or ability to understand English. In this same way, we want to speak to people who have cognitive difficulties so that they will understand and internalize what we're saying. This includes: coming near a person to give instructions, rather than yelling across a room; trying to maintain eye contact with them so they can focus on what we're saying without getting distracted; using easy-to-understand words and simple sentences; expressing an idea, then checking to see if they comprehend it; telling them that it's OK to ask questions (even adding that it's expected or appreciated) — and doing this all without sounding condescending."
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