Navigating the 4 Most Crucial Employee LOA Conversations

Go ahead and put down the blood pressure medication and leave the pre-rehearsed scripts for the sessions in front of the bathroom mirror. A leave of absence can be one of the most stressful times for your employees, and navigating what to say when they come up is no walk in the park for People Teams either

We’re going to break down the four most crucial conversations you can have with your employees going on leave so when the time comes you can rest easy knowing you’ve got the convo on lock.

The cold hard truth is that not all leaves are positive leaves. The joy of bringing a new human into this world and bonding with them is a whirlwind of love and can be overwhelming in its own right, but that’s just a fraction of the leave of absence requests that occur. Unfortunately,  it’s possible that an employee will need leave because of a debilitating accident or the loss of a loved one.

Crucial Conversation #1: The Leave Announcement

They might share this news directly with HR, but more often than not they’ll first let the boss know because employees are typically more comfortable sharing this information with someone they already have a strong relationship with, or perhaps because they think that’s what they’re supposed to do. The way this conversation gets handled can make or break the LOA experience before it begins.

The leave announcement conversation gone right: It’s commonplace for a manager to look at work through the lens of performance metrics, goals, and satisfying the demands of clients. The moment an employee makes it known they’ve had a life event that requires a leave of absence they need to temporarily throw all of those things aside.

They can focus on important company initiatives later, but right now it’s imperative to switch to “empathetic support mode” and to do so quickly. Even if they’ve turned to their people team first, the same rule applies. The reaction an employee receives after news of their leave request can be the difference between feeling supported by the company they’ve dedicated countless hours of their life to, or realizing in one fell swoop that the company actually doesn’t care about them as a human.

The communication they receive at this crucial moment needs to be informative and supportive, but above all else empathetic to the very human experience they’re going through.

The leave announcement conversation gone wrong: If HR or a manager gets notified that their employee needs to take a leave it can become painfully obvious if they’re uninformed or unprepared to handle the situation. Not acknowledging the severity of the employee’s situation, or insinuating in any way that taking care of a sick parent is “letting the team down” is a surefire way to alienate and frustrate an employee.

While People Teams are historically much more aware of this poor behavior, not all company cultures are created equal. Making this first conversation confusing, cold, or unhelpful when answering the questions an employee might have as it pertains to what they’re about to go through for the next few days, weeks, or months is a recipe for them walking out the door.

Crucial Conversation #2: Smoothing Out Bumps in the Road

There are likely a billion (low estimate) thoughts and concerns running through your employee’s minds when taking a leave, and only a percentage of them are related to the mechanics of the leave itself. Employees want to do everything by the book, but sometimes the book can look like it’s written in a foreign language.

When questions arise, and even for the simplest leaves they inevitably do, the conversation you have with your employee is critical to their LOA experience.

Smoothing out bumps in the road gone right: Given everything going on in an employee’s life while on leave, it’s imperative that when questions arise about paid leave programs in their state or about the amount of time they’re given, or about opportunities to extend their leave, People Teams who respond quickly, thoroughly and with support and compassion for their situation are the ones who are most likely to see employee loyalty and retention. 

That isn’t always easy to do because typically People Teams have a slew of other tasks that they’re responsible for, but being a reliable bank of LOA information, or providing them a human, 1-1 resource they can turn to for fast answers to their questions is the tastiest recipe for LOA success.

Smoothing out bumps in the road gone wrong: Just like organizations need their people to step up in a crunch, the reverse rings just as true. There’s never a time in an employee’s life where they need their organization to step up more than when they need to transition from work to life. Oftentimes what they’re met with is a cold and confusing 1-800 number and unsolved problems.

Not every leave of absence question can be handled with a self-guided menu delivered by a robo-operator at the other end. When your internet is down, how many times do you just wish you could talk to a real human instead of meandering through a frustrating set of dial tones and selections that don’t quite solve the issue you’re trying to solve? Now imagine your life is down and trying to do the same thing.

The new workforce is begging for a higher level of service, and if they’re not getting it from their organization today, they’re going to look elsewhere for it.

Crucial Conversation #3: The Overzealous Manager

We bring up managers constantly not to harp on them specifically, because there are plenty of amazing managers out there. We talk about them because they are often the source of employment violations and emphasizing their importance in the leave journey can’t be overstated. 

Managers might be experts in their craft, but it’s unreasonable to expect them to know every law and be experts at properly handling leave of absence conversations. Sometimes a manager can mean well and cross the line while an employee is on leave.

The overzealous manager gone right: The phrase “less is more” really lends itself well to a manager’s role during a leave of absence. They should be aware of what type of leave their employee is going on, important return dates and if an employee reaches out to them directly for some reason they need to keep their response supportive, informative and brief.

If a manager can’t help but focus their energy on their employee’s leave, help them by giving them tips and ideas to make the return to work experience as positive as possible. If a manager truly wants to be helpful, instructing them to provide that warm and welcome landing for their people to return to is a fantastic place to direct their energy. Have them work on a communication plan for their employee’s return, and a roadmap so that it’s crystal clear how their direct report will get re-boarded into the fold of the organization’s operations.

The overzealous manager gone wrong: In the words of the late great Charlie Murphy in his tales of the late (was he great?) Rick James, managers can be habitual line steppers. Most issues with managers having conversations with employees on leave stem from having conversations with employees on leave. Some of them mean well but just can’t help themselves by pressuring them into returning to work early, or asking if they can do work while on leave.

Educating managers on what they can and can’t say, and holding them to that, can keep your organization out of legal hot water, and is a crucial step toward ensuring a positive leave experience for your people.

Crucial Conversation #4: The Welcome(?) Back!

So you’ve navigated the first 3 crucial conversations and you’re sailing is on course for a successful leave of absence experience. The last crucial conversation we’re going to discuss can have a tsunami effect on the whole journey, but handle this right and you’ll have an employee who returns to work feeling truly supported and reinvigorated to get back into the swing of things.

The welcome back gone right: When navigating this conversation it’s important to respect that returning to work can feel like day one all over again for an employee who has taken an especially long leave. Things might feel confusing to even the most tenured teammate. Ever go to the same grocery store for a decade and then you go to the same grocery store across town and nothing is where it should be? It can feel sort of like that.

Further, just because they may have taken a lot of time off work, the effects of their life-changing experience might still be with them. Some employees might be raring and ready to get back to work, while others might still be trying to make sense of their life after a tragic loss.

The return to work communications must take this into account, and starting by having an open and safe conversation with your returning employee about how they are feeling or what they need can help set the stage for a soft, supported landing back into the fold. Let them know the status of their projects and communicate clearly how you plan to ramp up their workload so they can get their work life back in order after spending all their mental effort on getting their life outside of work in order.

The welcome back gone wrong: Let’s not assume…anything. Assumptions are a breeding ground for mistrust and resentment and can easily be avoided by openly communicating. Additionally Ignoring that a direct report has been out of the loop to take care of a very human reason doesn’t make them feel very human. 

We’ll re-emphasize this point, but if the first conversation when they return is about the metrics that were missed due to their absence or that they in any way felt burdened by their absence (whether it’s true or not) is a reflection that the organization doesn’t actually care about the employee beyond what they produce for the company.

Leaving an employee out of important meetings they used to attend because they are now with child, assuming that they can’t handle the responsibility any longer is a crucial misstep and can also lead to litigation. Equipping your managers with the materials and skills to not make assumptions when an employee returns to work can save the relationship from capsizing.

About Tilt

Tilt is leading the charge in all things leave of absence management through easy-to-use tech and human touch. Since 2017, our proprietary platform and Empathy Warriors have been helping customers make leave not suck by eliminating administrative burdens, keeping companies compliant, and providing a truly positive and supportive leave of absence experience for their people. 

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