It seems that one of the core competencies an HR professional must develop, particularly in smaller organizations, is the ability to handle frantic, panicky, anxious managers who feel victimized by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
No other HR law creates as much angst and confusion as FMLA. The law is simple in explanation, elusive in practice. Everybody who works 1250 hours a year after their first year of employment is entitled to twelve weeks of leave to cover absences related to serious medical conditions involving self or family members. Pretty simple on the surface.
The problem in really understanding the law is the use of the phrase “twelve weeks,” because that implies chunks of time that a manager can easily plan for, like vacations. It’s more accurate to say that everyone covered has 480 hours of leave, because the law allows for two kinds of leave that give managers fits: intermittent leave and reduced-schedule leave.
Intermittent leave seems to be the most difficult to deal with. Essentially, an employee with, or caring for a family member with, a serious medical condition that involves occasional flare-ups or continuing treatment can spread those 480 hours over the entire year, often at very inconvenient moments for managers. Although the law asks that employees give notice of potential absences, the phrase “when practicable” applies to FMLA. Sometimes a condition (migraines, for example) is inherently unpredictable and may even prevent the employee from calling in. If the medical practitioner writes something like “may be absent 2-3 days per month at unpredictable intervals,” that means that all of those absences are protected absences that the employee has the right to take. This can give managers migraines as they try to deal with the impact of slipping deadlines and coverage issues.
Equally problematic in the small organization is reduced-schedule leave, which occurs when the medical provider indicates a person can only work a part of his or her weekly schedule. Managers who had been counting on a key person being there for an important launch or to finish a critical project on time find themselves in a difficult spot.
These two situations invariably cause the frustrated manager to storm into HR and interrogate the HR professional about loopholes, exceptions, second opinions and suggestions to hire private detectives to see if the employee is really does have a “serious medical condition” or is just trying to avoid work. Some managers even go around HR and try to get people to work from home in defiance of the medical practitioner’s restrictions.
While I have known a few employees who have used FMLA improperly, the vast majority of people on FMLA don’t want to be there. They don’t want to have a serious medical condition and live in constant state of anxiety. They want to work and they want to get back to work as soon as possible. The last thing these people need is a flipped-out manager who cares only about getting the work done and shows little or no concern for an employee who needs care and compassion.
The problem isn’t that people go on FMLA. This is life; stuff happens. The problem is managers who don’t know how to plan to save their lives.
My advice to HR professionals on how to deal with managers who make FMLA more difficult than it needs to be is as follows: when you train managers on FMLA, open your talk with a single slide free from graphics that contains one message: “FMLA is the law. Get over it.”
Once they’ve recovered from the shock, explain to them in simple terms how FMLA works. Then tell them how to prepare for it:
- Plan your overall staffing needs based on the assumption that at least one person in your department will always be out on FMLA. Double that number for every ten people in the department.
- Ensure that all processes in your department are documented and easy to follow so that anyone can step in and do the essential job requirements with a tiny bit of refresher training.
- Make sure you have at least one (preferably two) backups for every job in your department. Implement a cross-training plan and stick to it. Make sure the backup is regularly informed of what’s happening in the job they’re assigned to cover.
- List all of the resources you have available to fill a position temporarily: temp agencies, temp pools, interns, floaters, borrowing people from other departments.
- Don’t be afraid to ask your fellow managers for help when you’re tight on staffing.
- Learn how to do all the jobs yourself. Particularly when it comes to intermittent leave, you may find that you are the backup.
The law expects that management will make whatever preparations are necessary to comply with FMLA requirements. With a little planning and forethought, managers can avoid panic, keep things running and focus their energies on encouraging a person with a serious medical condition to take the time to get better soon.
And that’s exactly where they should be.