This article was updated on July 27, 2018.
As life runs its course, employees may take leaves of absence for medical reasons, to raise children or to care for family. During a leave, employees may realize they are unable to return to work at the same capacity. Developing effective policies for communicating with employees on leave is crucial. Regular communication can allow HR to mitigate the risk of unexpected extended leave or other changes.
The repercussions of poorly managed leave communication can be incredibly costly, both from a legal and talent-related risk standpoint, according to PacificResources. HR must balance regulatory requirements surrounding employee leave with their need to proactively plan for talent to replace work output. Laws surrounding the administration of protected leave can be extraordinarily complex, which is why HR leadership should develop standardized procedures and policies for communicating with employees on leave.
Effective Employee Leave Communication Policies
Breakdowns in communication surrounding employee leave can occur for a variety of reasons, particularly when the individual is preoccupied with a new child or medical issues. If an employee has specific needs after returning to work, it's an employer's responsibility to provide reasonable accommodation. However, employees must be prepared to present a case for "undue hardship" if they request an extension of protected leave with unpaid leave or other specific accommodations.
Your policies cannot leave any room for ambiguity between employees, management and human resources about who is responsible for communication and when it should occur. In addition to confirming the intended dates of employee leave, Workforce Tactix recommends inquiring about the need for possible accommodations during routine check-ins. By striving to keep communication open from beginning to end, carefully recording all interactions and setting clear expectations for the frequency of interactions, HR can reduce the chances they will be found liable because of communication errors.
The Society for Human Resources Management recommends implementing specific policies for employees on leave, such as a monthly call to check in with a direct supervisor. Asking employees to initiate communications can help ensure that employers are not excessively engaged with employees on leave, as well as provide employees with an opportunity to reaffirm their intended date of return to work.
In addition, SacksTierney recommends asking employees to specifically opt in to electronic communications "before leave ever becomes an issue." Utilizing digital communication, in whatever form your organization favors, can allow managers to track and record all communication easily.
Possible Compliance Issues
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires employers to provide notice about FMLA eligibility, rights and responsibilities and notify employees about coverage. When protected family or medical leave is concluded, an employee must be restored to their initial role or one which is "virtually identical" in terms of "pay, benefits, and other employment terms and conditions," according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Certain exemptions from the restoration policy can exist for "key employees," such as executives, whose absence would have the potential to cause "substantial and grievous economic injury" to the organization's operations.
If a key employee's inability to return to work at the end of protected leave or absence has the potential to create a genuine hardship for the organization, HR should gather documentation to prove this hardship. This can occur on day one of leave, or in many cases, before leave is taken. While consultation with internal council is always critical to be certain of compliance with all relevant regulations, CHROs must verify that their communication policies encompass each of the following:
- Protected leave eligibility communications
- Employee rights and coverage notifications
- Employee responsibilities for communication
- Positions for which extended absence can create hardship
The decision to take extended leave or return to work in a different capacity is not uncommon. By establishing clear policies for open communication during employee leave, with appropriate attention paid to compliance, HR can remain informed of an employee's intent and protect the organization's ability to plan effectively for the future.