The Right & Wrong Ways Managers Manage Work Leave

When an employee takes a leave of absence they’re banking on a smooth transition and proper support from their employer, and the first person they tell is most likely — for better or for worse — their manager.

The conversation can be stressful, highly emotional and super-duper awkward. Or it can be productive, informative and affirming.

The difference in the outcome is you, dear managers. Yes, it’s up to you. Well, not just you; it takes a village to manage a leave of absence (LOA). But you have the opportunity to make your employees feel supported as soon as the words “leave of absence” come out of their mouths. You can be the one to offer assurance that while they’re dealing with life, work is under control. You can protect your company, support your people and cement your status as manager of the year.

Or you can make a mess of it; intentionally, or inadvertently.

Now, we know you have a lot going on. Budgets, strategic plans, reports and meetings. You have meetings to plan meetings. You have employees to hire and train, projects to manage and fires to put out. So we know that managing work leave is probably not high on your priority list. Who has the time, right?

But here’s why it’s important to give leave some love: One foot-in-mouth moment can cause distrust and anxiety among your employees, which if severe enough might motivate them to leave for good. Plus, leave of absence management blunders can put your company at risk of bad PR and expensive lawsuits.

Fortunately, there are solutions out there (insert subtle Tilt plug) to help make life and leave a little easier for your employees, your people team and you. So fear not! Let’s explore the good, the bad and the ugly of work leave management, becuase when your employees need it most, a manager’s actions can make or break the experience.

Top Ways Managers Mess Up LOA

You may have heard how confusing FMLA can be, so you just smile and nod when someone brings it up. You may feel clueless about work leave laws and policies, so you simply avoid dealing with the nitty-gritty (or the slightly gritty). You may not know the difference between sick days and paid leave, and you’ve survived this long so why bother learning now?

If you relate to any of the above, you are most definitely not alone.

The experts say managers are the primary cause of employment law violations, and those wince-worthy mistakes happen because of a lack of training and understanding of LOA. From innocent mistakes and documentation errors to failing to enforce policy to blatant discrimination and personal judgements, there are plenty of examples of how managers can make a mess of the leave of absence process.

Here are some common missteps by managers who let their guard down during the leave process:

    1. Personal Judgements & Retaliation: In one legal case, a former employee was fired for taking a vacation while on a leave of absence. He was later awarded $1.3 million in damages due to retaliatory termination. The courts said the employer had ignored his medical records and FMLA application and instead fired him because of a supervisor’s “shock, outrage and offense” over his not-termination-worthy vacation. No matter what you think about a work leave situation, there are laws and policies that give employees rights. Say it with us now: Employees are entitled to job-protected leave. Managers need to be aware of how their personal bias or opinions can violate laws and impact their company. These cases can be super costly and embarrassing headlines that wreak havoc on a company’s reputation.
    2. Lack of Training: When awarding big damages in FMLA cases, courts are asking employers why their managers are not being trained properly. In some cases, managers don’t know the difference between sick days and FMLA leave, and they don’t know that intermittent leave is a thing. Please note: It is a thing. It’s important to learn the basics and understand the right and wrong questions to ask. At a minimum you should know: how long is the leave, your employee’s eligibility, what constitutes legal communication, and where you and your employee go for more information.
    3. Compliance and Tracking: The truth is, leave laws are complicated, and the paperworkand processes can be maddening. According to the 2021 Guardian Absence Management Study, employers report that their top challenges are coordinating various types of LOAs, interpreting both state and federal regulations, tracking intermittent FMLA leaves, transferring employees to alternative positions and applying ADA. It’s a challenge even when you work in human resources. When you work in sales or tech or legal, well, we feel for ya. Managers are never going to be leave experts, so they need to know how to direct their employees to the right people and through the right processes. Bottomline: Don’t wing it.
    4. Bad Communication: Maybe you have a friendly relationship with an employee, who is on leave post-surgery. You text occasionally to check in, to offer news about staff changes or new clients, and ask about the state of their recovery. There’s even some gossip thrown in. It’s casual. You think. But your employee doesn’t want to hear about issues with a project or staffing shortages. Gossip stresses them out. Maybe your friendly communication doesn’t feel friendly. It feels like pressure. Make sure you’re communicating exactly how your employee wants you to communicate during leave.

Top Tips To Help Managers Rock LOA

Wow, that was rough. Being a manager is hard. We think it’s time for a pep talk.

Yes, there are plenty of pitfalls when managing LOAs. However, there are also many opportunities during the leave process for you to show yourself as a strong, capable leader. You have the chance to be mindful, organized and helpful for employees, who may be dealing with life-changing events at home. What you say and do is critical, but you are worthy of this challenge. You can be the bright spot in their moment of darkness, or their center of calm during a time of chaos. You can be the person who throws them an office baby shower or prepares a post-surgery gift basket. You can do all those things and also ensure their leave logistics are settled.

Go get ‘em, champ! Was that too far? Let’s move on.

The mistakes above offer lessons on how not to handle leave of absence administration. Here are a couple more ways to make the most of this pep talk.

  1. Be a Support System: Whether your employee is having a baby or nursing a loved one through a devastating sickness, they are experiencing something life-changing. Remember their humanity, and that before the leave and after they return, they may still be going through a lot of internal upheaval. Be a support system, and allow them to share what they want to share. Give them space to be a human, not just an employee. However, also recognize that their personal situation may not impact their career goals. Create an open and honest dialogue, challenge your own biases and don’t assume.
  2. Support a Returning Employee: Returning from a leave of absence is not like returning after vacation. This process is ripe for error, misunderstanding and compliance landmines. Employees may be returning to a mess of unanswered emails and unfinished projects. Or they may return to a department that has effectively delegated their work and role — not ready to return to their old ways. Either way, it can leave an employee feeling marginalized, overwhelmed and unhappy. Managing the return process is vital, and requires care, communication and compassion. Celebrate your returning employee and plan for their return. Help prepare them for the situation to which they are coming back.
  3. Overcommunicate: What are your expectations before, during and after the leave? What are your employee’s expectations? What is the backfill plan and how can you support that? So many questions! Make sure you have the answers, and ensure you have opened up communication with your employees and their teams. Communicate about communication, and communicate your expectations about communicating about communication. Woah! That got intense there.

Now is the time for you to master work leave management — or at least feel a bit more confident and comfortable.Understand where you might need training or education around administering LOAs and know how to reach out to your company’s on-staff or out-sourced leave experts.

And remember, there are plenty of tools (ahem), support and pep talks out there to help you.

Have more questions? We get it, work leave management for remote workers can be like dousing a dumpster fire with a spoonful of water. At Tilt, we stay on top of changing leave laws and ensure compliance so you don’t have to. We also support your managers with training, keep a tidy paper trail and smooth out your processes. We are ready to turn potential legal losses into a win for your company culture and employee happiness. Say good-bye to risk. Say hello to leave with peace of mind.

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