Posts tagged Leave of Absence
Support 101
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In my consulting, working with employees through difficult times in their lives, including medical and disability issues, I come across a lot of great techniques to support others during a personal crisis. In addition, I have witnessed some (usually well-meaning) actions that don’t help, and actually can make a bad situation worse. For an employee who is facing a devastating medical challenge or serious accident, or that of a family member, support from management and coworkers can be the difference between getting through a tough time and coming back to work with a renewed sense of appreciation and engagement, and toiling through a crisis feeling alone and disengaging from work in a way that is neither good for the employee or for his/her team and employer.

Sometimes employees share full details of a crisis with their coworkers, seeking understanding and help from the people they spend the majority of their lives with. It is a natural reaction for the team to express support initially, but then begin to worry about how the work will get done, and even to withdraw from the employee in crisis and realign work immediately. This is a mistake. A more nuanced reaction is in order, and managers and teammates should take their cues from the employee and allow him/her to dictate what is reasonable, while providing a safety net in case additional help is needed. If someone is still at work and wanting to be engaged and productive, we shouldn’t strip that from the employee, but rather should wait in the wings and only come in to offer help when that support is truly needed. To remove responsibility and meaningful work from an employee without them requesting assistance can make that person feel like their relevance is diminished and that they are being written off as “too sick to work” when they are still there, contributing important forward motion to the team.

Often, employees in crisis worry that they will be marginalized and ejected from the team during the time when they are unable to work, because they understand how important their contributions are and they worry that without them there, someone else will need to take their place, and they will no longer be needed. For this reason, it’s very important that managers clearly articulate their desire to have the employee back at work just as soon as they feel ready, and to check in on a regular basis to let the employee know that their presence is missed and their team is looking forward to seeing them again. That said, this message should not be that there is a lot of work to do and that the team is falling behind because the employee is away, or that pressure is being brought to bear on the employee to force them to return to work before it’s medically appropriate. Rather, the message should be that the employee is in the team’s thoughts and that they want to see him/her back at work when the time is right.

Managers who are aware of one of their team members’ illness and impending absence may have trouble answering questions from the team about what is going on. I have often heard concerns from managers about how to communicate with their teams in a way that helps them understand the impact, but also protect the privacy of the employee in crisis. The right answer, I often advise, is to be clear about the work status of the employee, without communicating details that don’t contribute to the team’s need to plan for work while the employee is out. Often the communication is simply, “Joe Doe is on Short Term Disability/FMLA leave beginning today, and he is expected to return in six weeks, so we will be covering his work during that time. I want you to know that Joe is okay and is looking forward to getting back to work as soon as possible.”

Coworkers who are aware of more detailed information because the employee has chosen to share that may be wondering how they can support their teammate. Here are a few easy ideas:

·       Listen. Say, “I’m so sorry to hear you’re going through this. How are you feeling?”

·       Help. Instead of asking, “Is there anything I can do?” mention something specific, like, “Can I pick up your kids for a playdate?” or “How about I bring by dinner tomorrow night?” If you don’t know your teammate well enough to visit the home, give a gift card to a local restaurant.

·       Stay in Touch. If you are close enough to have your teammate’s cell phone number, call or text each week or two to check in to say hello and let him/her know you care.

Sometimes well-meaning coworkers, friends and even family will do things they think are helpful, but actually aren’t. Here are a few things to avoid:

·       Making it about you. Telling long, drawn-out stories about how you once had an aunt who had the same problem…it’s fine if there was an inspirational outcome and you want to lift your coworker’s spirits, but otherwise, just offer support and a caring, listening ear instead of monopolizing the conversation chatting about yourself when your teammate is the one who needs help.

·       Offering prayers or saying anything about “God’s will” unless you are already sure that is welcome. Some people are not religious, and although offering prayers makes YOU feel better, your coworker may just feel uncomfortable about how to respond. Plus, even if they believe in it, they may feel like God’s will kind of sucks right now. Instead, think of saying, “I am hoping for a quick recovery for you-I’ll keep you in my thoughts.”

·       Sending them crackpot therapies like juice fasting, coffee enemas and crystal healing, in an effort to “make sure they know what will cure them.” If you want to give a referral for a great massage therapist to help your coworker stay in balance during healing, by all means do so. If your coworker asks for your advice, feel free to give it. But telling your teammate that conventional medicine is harmful, or trying to hijack what is already a complicated treatment process for them, is selfish and counterproductive. Keep it to yourself.

·       Avoiding your coworker. If you don’t know what to say, don’t avoid the issue and pretend your friend isn’t going through something tough and risk contributing to their feelings of isolation. It’s always okay to say, “I don’t know what to say. But I want you to get better, and I care about you.”

Most people are very caring and want to be supportive. They don’t intentionally do things to stress out people in crisis and waste their energy when they need 100% of it for recovery. Respecting employees’ privacy, treating them with dignity, ensuring they have an ongoing opportunity to contribute at work as they are able, and providing them with a caring support network are all ways to effectively help a coworker through a crisis. In addition, avoiding the things that don’t help, and focusing on the things that do, can help effectively support employees through crisis and get them back where they want to be, in life and at work!

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Employees in Treatment for Substance Abuse
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Dear Solve HR,

I really need help with this one. My employee of one year has been erratic lately, showing up more than two hours late for his shift on two occasions, forgetting to perform some very important safety protocols during his work, and lashing out at a coworker in violation of our employee conduct policy. I coached him on these occasions verbally and in writing, but things haven’t improved. At the most recent meeting three days ago, I let him know that if he arrived late or violated policy one more time, he would be subject to termination.

Today, he showed up an hour late, without a phone call or any communication. When he arrived, I handed him a termination letter, and told him that he was fired. His response was that he was an alcoholic and was attending outpatient therapy, but was having a hard time sticking to his program. I told him I was sorry to hear that but that he was still terminated.

I walked him out of the building and he left. My manager thinks I did the right thing. Now I’m worried that maybe it was the wrong choice.

What do you think?

Manny

Dear Manny,

Yikes! This is one of those sticky situations that doesn’t come up every day. I understand your concern, and I hope that part of your worry is about making sure this employee is okay. We all find ourselves sick and unable to work at one time or another, and hopefully your company is supportive of people who need help, by providing care through your employee assistance plan, health insurance benefits and short term disability salary continuation if those things are available.

That said, the repeated problems you described are serious, and you had no way of knowing your employee needed help for a medical condition, because he didn’t ask for it or disclose his struggles. He just kept messing up at work and not telling you about what was going on. But you can probably understand why he wasn’t too eager to disclose that he was in treatment for alcoholism.

Before we start talking about the situation, I will recommend that you consult your company’s attorney or another employment lawyer to obtain advice about what to do in this situation. Legal advice is critical in hazy situations like this one. So do yourself a favor and be sure to involve your HR manager as well as your legal counsel on the front end before completing a termination in a situation like this.

While it’s true that your employee should be held accountable for his failure to arrive at work on time, performing his essential job duties and adhering to your employee code of conduct, and his explanation doesn’t erase the prior behavior for which he is subject to discipline, this situation merits further analysis. When your employee told you that he was an alcoholic and had been seeking treatment, that statement could be interpreted as a request for leave as a reasonable accommodation for a disability.

A “qualified individual with a disability” entitled to protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is defined by the EEOC as:

A person who meets legitimate skill, experience, education, or other requirements of an employment position that he or she holds or seeks, and who can perform the "essential functions" of the position with or without reasonable accommodation. An "individual with a disability" is a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, has a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment.

According to the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), this standard of an impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities has been interpreted to include alcoholism. If your employee was an alcoholic refusing to obtain treatment and repeatedly violated policies and did not perform essential job functions, then a well-documented termination would certainly be an appropriate option. If we consider your employee’s disclosure as a request for leave, then that infuses this termination with a distinct lack of clarity.

Technically it sounds like you terminated this employee prior to his disclosure. But issues of fact may remain here.  The EEOC does not generally view technicalities favorably-their view is likely to be that your employee disclosed his condition at the 11th hour and asked for help, and if you don’t make an effort to engage in the interactive process at that point, you may be held accountable for violating the ADA.

If your employee had gone home after being terminated, then called at some later date to talk about how his medical condition had caused his poor performance and requested help at that point, then it would be much clearer that you had terminated employment based on documented performance problems, without him having requested a reasonable accommodation.

Let’s look at the benefits to your company for allowing your employee to stay on and take leave for treatment:

  • You retain a knowledgeable and experienced resource on your team, instead of losing the investment you’ve made in that employee and incurring turnover costs
  • You promote loyalty and gratitude from that employee, and hopefully a more productive and motivated employee when he recovers and returns to work
  • Your other employees respect and appreciate that you care for your employees when they are vulnerable and sick, and that you will support them through difficult times as well if they need help
  • You reduce legal risk and potential reputational damage that can arise from EEOC action

One caveat: if you routinely drag your feet in dealing with performance issues, and this is an employee that everyone recognizes should have been terminated a long time ago but wasn’t because management didn’t do the job, then you may encounter frustration, both from upper management and coworkers. But don’t give in to the pressure to terminate an employee abruptly in a situation like this when in truth you haven’t been on top of performance management and discipline in the past. If you find yourself in that situation, it is probably worth the additional time and work to give the employee the opportunity to get well and perform his job duties, and manage him appropriately going forward.

You also mentioned that this employee failed to adhere to an important safety protocol at work. If an employee is in a work situation where being under the influence of alcohol presents a safety risk to himself and others, you may be within your rights to randomly test for the presence of alcohol after he returns to work from treatment. Certainly, your reasonable suspicion drug and alcohol testing protocols should still be utilized, consistent with what all employees are subject to in your workplace.

Again, consult with your HR team and attorneys to get specific advice about how to proceed.

Good Luck!

Kelly & the Solve HR Team

Visit Solve HR, Inc.

Photo credit: mariobonifacio via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

5 Tips for Handling Employee Medical Issues

I get a lot of calls from managers telling me that an employee who used to have stellar, or even just acceptable performance, now is having trouble.  She's told her manager that she's dealing with diabetes, (or MS, depression, migraines, you name it!) and this is affecting her ability to work.  It's probably also making her miss work intermittently too, which can negatively affect coworkers and the business.

Photo credit: Lee Royal / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Many employees are just as confused as management about why they can't perform or how medical problems might be affecting their work.  Here are five tips for approaching a sticky problem involving employee medical issues:

  1. Get HR involved.  You are a manager, and your expertise is helping employees do their jobs the best way possible.  You can deliver that message, coach, follow up and hold people accountable, but if there is another issue involved that isn't appropriate for you to discuss with your employee, you need backup from your company's absence management or reasonable accommodation experts.  They will talk with the employee to find out what assistance may be needed, and whether it's reasonable for the company to provide it.  If you don't have this function in your company, choose an experienced consultant to guide you through this process.
  2. Offer FMLA leave.  If your employee is missing work, even on an intermittent basis, be sure the employee has been offered the opportunity to request FMLA leave and/or state leaves.  Depending on the number of employees at your work location, your company may be responsible for offering the opportunity to apply for FMLA leave.  Leave requests may be handled in-house or by an external vendor.
  3. Don't ask personal medical questions.  Your employee may feel comfortable sharing every gory detail of medical interventions and illnesses.  This is your employee's right, but you should never ask questions unless they relate to the employee's ability to do the work.  For example, it's okay to ask "What do you need so you can do your job?" but not "Do you have a slipped disk?  We have a whole pallet of 75 lb. boxes that need unloading."
  4. Be flexible.  If an employee needs a temporary alteration in his job duties, and it's easy to do that, then make it happen.  Many managers worry that if they allow a temporary accommodation, it will just tempt others to use excuses to avoid work.  Often, simply making sure there's documentation of the medical need eliminates the issue of copycat requests.  If a doctor's note is required, then most people who request help will really need it.
  5. Don't Broadcast.  There's no need to explain to your other employees what's going on with the situation.  If others ask, simply respond that you have it handled, and that you guarantee the nosy employee the same privacy as the employee who needs help.  Other employees are not entitled to an explanation, but if their help is needed, show genuine appreciation and reward them for pitching in.

For more information, visit Solve HR, Inc.