Training Your Managers to Support Employee Leave

Over the course of my career I have been in roles to help administer policies and work with both managers and employees to manage leave requirements. Below are three of the more common areas where many companies can trip up if managers are not properly prepared. Just a word of warning — none of them is a quick fix. They require training, patience, and more training.

HR’s not the Center of the Employee Leave Universe

Managers are the gatekeepers with regard to some employee communications, and your organization can be in trouble before you ever know what hit you. It’s critical to train managers on the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and other laws that place requirements on how leave requests should be handled.

An effective way to work with managers is teaching them the signals and phrases to look out for before reporting the leave to HR. For instance, if an employee is talking about being away from work for several weeks due to a family member’s health issues, the managers should know to contact HR to start the FMLA process. It seems simple for those who know the laws and understand the rules, but most managers don’t have those insights. If you assume all of your managers will know what to do in situations like these, you’re kidding yourself.

Managing Fallout from Accommodations

Another issue that often surfaces is ADA accommodations. Even with major changes in the law in the past few years, I think most HR professionals understand the implications of offering accommodations, and some managers even seem to get it. One challenge that spins out of that is how other employees see the accommodation.

Maybe someone gets an office on the first floor because she can’t climb stairs. Maybe someone gets a nicer chair because he has back issues. Whatever the case, it’s important to head off any commentary from the surrounding employees.

All the work to provide accommodations and assist the employee can be undone by insensitive comments from peers. I’d hope that nobody would say anything about a colleague’s accommodation, but I’ve been around long enough to know it’s always a possibility. If employees believe someone is getting a benefit they don’t have — even when it’s related to a disability or other extenuating circumstance — it tends to cloud their judgment.

Changing the Focus

Imagine you’re a supervisor with an employee on intermittent FMLA. When it comes time to rate employee performance, how would you keep the leave separate from the actual performance on the job? Some supervisors see the leave as impacting overall performance.

They need support and encouragement from HR to continue focusing on the work accomplishments when the employee is working rather than focusing on what is not getting done when they are gone. The supervisor should evaluate the work actually done and work with the employee to get back to full productivity.

It would be very difficult not to, in some corner of your mind, consider the employees on FMLA as less capable – or less productive — than the rest of the staff who is not on leave. In this example you can substitute USERRA (active duty military) or ADA just as easily. Out of sight really is “out of mind,” but it doesn’t have to be. I think it’s important to get it out there and off the table as soon as possible when discussing with the employee’s manager.

“I know Katy’s leave is making it tough on you guys to get your deliverables completed on time, but let’s focus on the positive side of things and work to get her back up to speed as quickly and safely as possible. She’s a good worker and wants to get back to work as soon as she can.”

Simple, easy, but probably a rare conversation.

Again, these are only a few of the key areas that can become issues if not dealt with early in the leave management process. Have you seen these play out well (or not so well) in your own organization? Care to share any best practices around employee leave management?

Ben Eubanks, Associate HCM Analyst, Brandon Hall Group

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