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Boss’s Tip of the Week #20: How To Help Employees Through Personal or Family Medical Issues

Here is the latest installment of the Boss’s Tip of the Week.  This advice column for managers is brought to you by Bob Rosner and Allan Halcrow, co-authors of The Boss’s Survival Guide.

A star athlete pulls a hamstring and there’s no question: He goes out on the disabled list, he gets the best treatment, and, unless the injury is exceptionally severe, he comes back. No one questions any of it.

What a contrast to what often happens when the average employee gets sick or injured. She begs for time off to get treatment. She gets demoted to lesser jobs. Behind closed doors managers wonder, “How do we get rid of her?” To her face they make it clear that her illness better not get in the way of her job performance.

Why this ugly disparity? It’s simple: Sports teams understand that players are their greatest assets. Many employers don’t understand that, so they believe it’s easier and cheaper to replace someone than to face lost productivity or take a hit on their medical insurance premiums. They are wrong on both counts.

Imagine that all your employees are star players and the Super Bowl is approaching. Think about how you can help them stay in the game:

Encourage employees to stay healthy. If you work for a large company that has a wellness program, encourage employees to use it. If you don’t have that resource, think about other things you can do such as

• Brown-bag lunch programs or training on nutrition, exercise, CPR, first aid, pre-natal care, HIV, and even defensive driving

• Smoking cessation programs

• Partial or total reimbursement of gym memberships

• Encouraging before- or after-work walking programs

These efforts needn’t be expensive. Classes are available from many non-profit organizations that charge nominal fees.

Don’t encourage people to work when they’re sick. Do you make employees feel guilty for taking time off? If so, you prolong symptoms, impair productivity, and spread germs throughout the office. If people come to work a hacking, sneezing mess, encourage them to go home, and then deploy other resources to make sure the work gets done. If you’re sick, do everyone a favor—model the right behavior and stay home.

Keep medical information confidential. The nature of an employee’s illness isn’t anyone’s business—not even yours. You need to know only two things: that an employee is too ill to come to work, and that he or she is well enough to return. You don’t need to know why and you don’t want to know. If you have medical information about an employee, you can be charged with discrimination if you take any action the employee feels is negative, even if you know your action is unrelated. You also carry the burden of protecting the employee’s privacy.

Many companies have a policy requiring a doctor’s note for an employee to return after an absence of a specified period. The policy is reasonable, but advise employees that the doctor should not put a diagnosis on the note. Any medical information about employees should be kept in a confidential file separate from their personnel file.

Respect employees’ wishes. Employees may choose to share medical information with you. If that happens

• Ask why the employee is telling you (Does he simply need someone to listen? Is she requesting an FMLA leave? Does he need a reasonable accommodation? Is the employee offering an explanation for what he may feel is diminished performance?)

• Find out what the employee would like you to say, if anything.

Some employees may want to keep the diagnosis private; others may want to share it with co-workers; still others may want co-workers to know, but want you to tell them. If the employee asks for privacy, do not talk to others. If the employee asks you to share the news, ask her to make the request in writing and keep a copy in her medical file.

Be sure employees understand their benefits. Employees often don’t think about their benefits until they are ill and need them. However, they don’t always think clearly under stress. If you have an HR department, set up an appointment for the employee to meet with someone who can explain his coverage. If you don’t have an HR function, contact the insurance carrier and ask for someone who can help the employee understand the plan. Employees need to understand their coverage, their rights, and their responsibilities.

Understand the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Some illnesses and injuries are serious enough that employees become disabled. If that happens, they may be protected by the ADA and entitled to reasonable accommodation.

Understand the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Depending on the severity of an illness or injury, employees may need time off to recover. If you’re in an organization with 50 or more employees, your company is subject to the FMLA. If you have fewer than 50 employees, you may still choose to follow FMLA guidelines. Doing so is good for morale and retention (and may be required by a state law). Just be consistent; don’t pick and choose who can take leave on any basis other than a legitimate business reason.

Don’t discriminate based on pregnancy. Until fairly recently, it was common for companies to refuse to hire pregnant women, to fire women during their pregnancies, or to refuse to allow a woman to return to work after giving birth. All of these practices are illegal. View a disability caused by pregnancy or a related condition just as you would any temporary, physical disability.

Recognize that employees aren’t the only ones who get sick or injured. Employees may face a crisis at home if a spouse, child, parent, or partner is ill or injured. They may even need time off to be a caregiver. The FMLA provides for employees to take leave as a caregiver for a spouse, parent, or child in certain situations.

Real Life Examples

• The manager’s secretary was diagnosed with a serious illness and needed to take time off. Because the manager liked the woman, and in fact found her indispensable, he told her that she should take whatever time she needed and that her job would always be there. A few weeks later, another employee needed a medical leave. This time, the manager gave the employee notice that she was being put on a 12-week FMLA leave and gave her paperwork explaining her rights.
 
Ultimately, one of the employees sued the company. Which one? The first employee to go out on leave. While she was out, her manager left the company. Without him, no record of the arrangement was made and the company terminated her employment. She claimed, unsuccessfully, that a promise had been broken.
 
• An employee was a young mother fighting a rare kind of cancer. Traditional therapies didn’t work, and doctors wanted to try experimental treatment. The treatment would require her to spend a day every two months as a hospital outpatient, and would leave her weak and tired. Nonetheless, she wanted to keep working, and she didn’t want anyone’s pity.
 
With her manager’s approval, she decided to use her personal days for treatment. Together, they shuffled deadlines and work schedules so that her absences wouldn’t coincide with crunch times. The employee also offered cross training to some of her colleagues so they could help if need be when she was out.
 
The employee was thrilled. “I got the treatment I needed and I didn’t have to talk about being sick all the time,” she said. “We just talked about how to get the work done. That’s what was right for me.”

Boss’s Tip of the Week #20: How To Help Employees Through Personal or Family Medical Issues
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