There are all sorts of rules surrounding employee leave entitlements, but what do you do when a staff member needs to take sudden or prolonged absences for reasons outside these guidelines?
Richard Westney, the HR Man NZ, explains how to manage extraordinary leave situations with compassion while keeping the business’s best interests in mind.
What constitutes extraordinary leave?
Staff members may need to be absent from work for any number of reasons: long-term or debilitating sickness, including mental illness; injury and family obligations; or the desire to pursue personal or professional growth.
“Sometimes somebody wants to go and travel, or they want time off to do something that’s development related, or they’ve got an opportunity or a scholarship to go and study for a few months,” Westney says.
“But then you have the unfortunate side of things, where somebody’s unwell or has to care for a relative who has an illness, or is going through serious personal problems.”
Whatever the reason, it’s up the CEO’s discretion whether to grant miscellaneous leave requests with full, part or no pay. But as Westney explains, it’s important that your organisation is seen to do right by its people.
“It will have quite a negative impact on the culture if people think you’re not a caring employer and that you don’t help people in times of need,” he says. “If individuals think they’re being hard done by, they’ll be quite vocal about it.”
Policy vs compassion
With the organisation’s financial interests, employer brand and company morale on the line, extraordinary leave arrangements need careful consideration.
“I think you have to put compassion first, particularly where it’s a family or a sickness issue,” Westney says.
“[The amount of leave granted] will depend on how long somebody has been with the organisation, and whether they are a proven performer and very committed. Decisions like these always have to be made on a case-by-case basis.”
Employees may be eligible for paid time off for shorter-term absences, such as certain illnesses or family responsibilities. But when they will be away for an extended or indefinite period, it’s up to the organisation to negotiate an appropriate financial arrangement.
“I’ve had situations in the past where the length of time an employee would be absent has been open-ended,” Westney says. “So in that case you might come to an agreement whereby you pay them full-time for two months, then half-time for three or four months, and then they go on unpaid leave after that.
“That way it’s not an indefinite paid-leave period, but you help them financially as much as you can.”
Seeking temporary replacements
As Westney points out, you don’t want to end up paying for the same job twice. It’s best for the business’s bottom line if you can use existing resources to cover fully paid absences for as long as possible.
“If people know that an employee’s extended leave is due to compassionate reasons, the team will usually rally around them and try to cover that person’s role,” Westney says. “Alternatively, you can second somebody from another team that’s perhaps not so busy, and use the move as a development opportunity for them.” And if you have some certainty about the period of absence, you can always hire a contract or fixed term resource to cover the work.
If periods of extended leave near the 12-month mark, Westney recommends employers request medical assessments and start seriously looking at whether that person will realistically return to their role.
“Demonstrate ongoing concern and support for your employee, and stay up to date with any developments or future plans by keeping in touch throughout their absence,” he says.
How much do you tell other employees?
When it comes to communicating extraordinary leave circumstances to your other employees, Westney believes it’s best to keep details to a minimum.
“If the leave is due to reasons of compassion, I don’t think the whole business needs to know about it,” he says. “So I recommend keeping the communication within the team. Leave it to the individual concerned how much they want to share with people about why they’re not at work.”
One thing you shouldn’t worry about is setting a precedent by being too accommodating – in fact, according to research by the University of Western Australia, a flexible approach to sick leave may result in less time off across the board.
“Employers instinctively see unlimited sick leave from the point of view that employees are going to abuse it, and everyone will be taking Monday or Friday off,” Westney says. “In practice, that doesn’t actually happen.
“What unlimited sick leave does is take that pressure off people, so they don’t feel like they have to be at work when they really shouldn’t be, and it reassures them that if they do need to take an extra day or two during the year – for whatever reason – it’s not an issue and they’re not going to be reprimanded for it.”