While there are many human resource-related issues that can cause confusion and spark conflict, few are as problematic as what employers can and cannot ask when an employee goes on extended sick leave. This is because employers need to:
- Show their employee that they care.
- Ensure they comply with all privacy laws.
- Address the specific operational impact of an extended absence.
Achieving all of the above quickly, clearly and completely is often much easier said than done. However, equipped with accurate information, it can and should be a straightforward process for everyone involved. Here’s what employers need to know:
On Demonstrating Care:
Employers want loyalty and commitment from their employees – especially when things aren’t going well (e.g. lower revenues, increased competition, higher costs, etc.). During an illness, employees want the same, and will be looking to their employer for evidence that they care. A thoughtful email, a get well card, or some other appropriate gesture should be at the top of the to-do list.
On Respecting Privacy:
Some employees choose not to share their diagnosis with their employer, but instead provide a doctor’s note that essentially says that he or she is unable to work. Employers cannot directly or indirectly ask for more information.
However, employers can – and should – ask for information regarding prognosis, including the treatment plan in place (e.g. schedule of follow up appointments, including specific dates), and when the entire file will be reviewed by a medical expert in order to clear the employee for return to work or provide an update. Employers are empowered to insist that employees both obtain and provide this information so that they can plan.
On Addressing Operational Impact:
At the outset of an extended absence, employers may have all of the information they need to assess operational impact and make necessary adjustments. However, this is only a possibility – it is not guaranteed that the initial update will be the final one.
It’s more realistic to expect that information will continue coming in at different times (e.g. every two weeks), and that ongoing adjustments will be necessary. While this can be frustrating, it’s something that employers need to accept, so they can focus on mitigating any negative effects.
Furthermore, employers should be prepared to welcome back employees after their illness, and if necessary, provide modified work arrangements in conjunction with a medically-approved return to work plan.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that employees are entitled to extended medical absences. In such cases, employers are obligated to act in an appropriate, professional manner that befits a supportive team member – not a hostile adversary. The former approach can help make the process as straightforward as possible. The latter approach almost guarantees conflict, which invariably leads to costly complaints and reputation damage.
Author: Michelle Ventrella, HR Director, PIVOTAL HR Solutions