The communication challenges of FMLA
Tuesday, March 29, 2016
Jodi Lasher, a nurse, was terminated after she failed to notify anyone that she needed to take measures to address her approved Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) accommodation for her persistent migraines. In short, she fell asleep in an unused patient room and subsequently neglected her duties to monitor fetal heart rates in the labor and delivery department in which she worked.
This case provides many interesting legal talking points and illustrates a number of HR and management challenges. We discussed the challenges of accommodating leaves in Part I and will explore more about related communication in this article.
Leave information is confidential. According to the U.S. Department of Labor: "Supervisors and managers may be informed regarding necessary restrictions on the work or duties of an employee and necessary accommodations."
That is it. They do not need to know the medical information associated with the leave unless there is a safety issue that might necessitate it.
This lack of information can make communication between human resources and the employee's supervisor challenging. It can further complicate the subsequent communication between the supervisor and the rest of the team when co-workers try to understand why their colleague is being treated differently.
One common practice for handling this type of communication is the Mad Lib method. HR will talk around the medical issue but often for the sake of sanity, good relations or whatever will leave blanks during parts of the conversation for the managing supervisor to fill in herself. The supervisor then leaves with what she believes is the situation and then explains that to staff when they ask her questions.
The more everyone talks, the worse it gets. At best, staff is confused, trust is tested, and resentment for the colleague with alleged special treatment can begin to grow. At worst, confidentiality is breached and the company is exposed to potential liability. And none of this helps the protected employee feel comfortable about his leave and taking the necessary steps to heal and keep his job.
What to do?
Communication can be improved if everyone understands the situation better, specifically why leave exists and how it can help everyone. HR can explain to all staff that leave is a right afforded to every eligible employee.
Focusing on why this protection came about and how it is meant to help people through temporary health challenges is something to which everyone can relate. After all, who has not experienced a broken bone, surgery or had a loved one go through a health issue and worried about losing their job if they took the necessary time off?
By starting with the positive — helping everyone understand the benefits of leave — the conversation can be changed from one of suspicion and misunderstanding to compassion and support.
It must start with the employer. Too often, employers do not want to talk about leave for fear of everyone trying to take it. Conversely, talking about leave and openly supporting it can ultimately help the employer if an employee does abuse it.
Learn more in our next article about how open communication with good paperwork management can help employers and employees manage challenging leave situations. In the meantime, look around: Does your work environment support or shun employees taking leave? Feel free to share your thoughts.
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