As the saying goes ~ Absence makes the heart grow fonder ~ but clearly Thomas Haynes Bayly didn’t have a job in Human Resources or management. Those may not have been the hottest employment fields in 1844, but they’re serious business today. Whether you’re dealing with unrequited love or an employee out on leave, it begs the question, “How can we get them to return?” Today’s chat is not about FMLA or the ADA or your disability program, but about asking you to look at what your organization does to plan for employees to return to work.
You’re likely going to fall into one of three camps. The first, “We have proactive programs and processes that start the day the employee is hired”; the second, “the moment an employee is out, it triggers a process for keeping in touch”; and finally, “we sure hope they come back.” As a self-admitted type A, OCD gal, I’ll just lay it out there that I’m a big fan of the first camp. I will agree that it’s not simple to get there, as it takes organization, planning, follow-through and upkeep to be part of that camp. However, the long-term advantages are worth the effort.
Here is the basic road map for you to think through.
The day you hire a new candidate, setting the stage that you are a company that supports employees through difficult times and prefers to have the employee return to work after a personal or family leave creates an environment of open communication and loyalty. If the employee believes you are in their corner before they have a need, they are more likely to come to you in advance so you can collaboratively work through the process proactively.
- How do you set the tone and expectations for future absence needs?
- Is there a clearly defined absence policy in your handbook that you discuss with them?
- Have you outlined how an employee should address concerns if they feel they will need an absence or an accommodation?
At the point that an employee is absent or aware of the need for a future absence, their stress and anxiety is already starting to increase. Having clear expectations and a user friendly process will make things run more smoothly for you and for them.
- What is the process once an employee has communicated a need for leave or reported they are out of work?
- Who gets involved, and when?
- Is there a defined list of steps to take for administrative staff, beyond notifying payroll?
- How do you communicate changes which may impact the absent employee, such as new benefits offerings?
- Is there a defined list of steps to take for the employee, beyond calling their supervisor?
- Is your human resource team well versed on the appropriate ways to reach out to the employee during their absence?
- Does the employee know what to do if their circumstances change?
If this documentation doesn’t exist, it should. You have legal obligations to communicate certain things anyway, so you might as well take this time to reinforce the policy, expectations, and how to keep a line of open communication. Along with the FMLA certification and the Rights & Responsibilities form, take the time to remind them of support programs, such as any EAP options they may have. Let them know how frequently you or their supervisor will be checking in with them and be even clearer if you expect them to remain in contact with you.
Finally, it is getting to that time that the employee is preparing to return to work. The transition back to work may be as simple as walking in the door and sitting back down at their desk. However, it may not be that simple, but a bit more complicated and stressful for the employee.
- What is the RTW process?
- Will the employee be required to provide a good health certification before returning to active employment?
- Are there new accommodations being put in place in order to enable the employee to return to work?
- Have there been any organizational changes since the employee’s absence started, such as new management or a different healthcare plan?
It may seem like I’ve asked you more questions than given you information or direction, but it’s because my intent is to get you to review where you are and identify where you want to be. Hopefully you’re already there, but if not, use these questions to start identifying gaps. As a rule, all studies show that it is far less expensive to get an already trained employee back to work than going through the process of hiring a new one. Not to mention, if the pre-absence, absence, and post-absence time may not have gone well or had complexities that come from miscommunication, confrontation or performance issues, you will fare better if you have policies and processes defined and in place. Whether you end up in a court of law or having to explain to the CEO why and how something went awry, it is best if you can show a thoughtful, documented chain of events.
I know that camp number three (remember, that was, “we hope they come back!”) is easier to get to, seems less intense for the employee and you may think it gives you more time to focus on all of the other responsibilities on your plate. Your opinion would change when (not if) you experience the excruciating time, effort and money that will be spent when something goes downhill….and at some point, something ALWAYS goes downhill.
As I try to leave you with additional resources to consider, you may want to take a look at the JAN (Job Accommodation Network) section on Reasonable Accommodations for Employees on Leave – as it provides important information about what some of your obligations are even if an employee is not at work. If you are a member of organizations such as SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management) or DMEC (Disability Management Employer Coalition), you will have access to sample policies, training options, and webinars.