This article is the third in a three-part series about FMLA and the workplace: Part I | Part II | Part III

Jodi Lasher, a nurse, was terminated after she failed to notify anyone that she needed to take measures to address her approved 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 have reviewed the challenges associated with accommodating leave and keeping the information confidential. In this article, we will look at how being open about leave can help everyone.

Secret leaves

Many employers are reluctant to talk about leave options for fear that if employees knew about all of their leave options, they would all head out on leave. As counterintuitive as it may sound, transparency around leave issues can actually reduce abuse — or at least provide a stronger footing for the employer should there be a problem.

The first step is to ensure policies as well as required postings are clear and up to date. Next, HR should have a checklist of the exact procedure to follow when leave is requested and a corresponding form to fill out for each employee who requests leave.

By accurately tracking the dates, correspondence and documents exchanged as part of the leave process, the employer has a clean trail that shows they have met their obligations under the law. Thus, should an employee not hand paperwork in on time, it not be sufficient, or as in Lasher's case, the agreed-upon accommodation not be followed, the employer has a paper trail to support the actions they are taking.

Bad apples

Most employees do not intend to abuse leave. On the contrary, many employees are afraid to ask for leave because they do not understand it, know they are eligible for it or feel like it will be held against them if they try to take it. If eligible employees feel this way, it is not good for them or their employer. In the interest of keeping employees happy and productive, it is a good practice to ensure they understand all the benefits to which they are entitled, and that includes protected leaves.

Further, leaves are confusing. The paperwork can be challenging, and the last thing many people want to do when dealing with a serious health condition is follow a long process requiring multiple forms and deadlines. Making it as clear as possible in writing with checklists and clear forms helps make the process a little easier for the employee in need and, again, helps the employer confirm they are doing everything they can and should to help their employee.

An open approach where everyone understands leave also helps the colleagues of the employee out on leave. With a clear understanding of why someone can take leave and what leave entails, co-workers are less likely to be angry at the employee on leave and are more likely to step up to help cover the work.

By taking this more open approach, employees are more likely to be forthcoming with their employer, comply with the requirements and get through their challenging situation as quickly as possible. Conversely, by keeping leaves a secret or creating an environment that discourages taking leave, employers are at best hurting their employees and at worst breaking the law.

Leaves can be challenging, but if they are approached openly, they can be a much less painful process for everyone.