Follow the “EPS” Method When Faced with an Unexpected Leave of Absence
Empty Desk
July 25, 2017

We are in the middle of peak vacation season and just as you think you have everything set, and all areas are covered by your organization, someone walks in with a request that is much more than you bargained for. Whenever you think you have it all planned and spaced out, there are other requests for leaves that are not planned due to “life getting in the way”.

Whether they are mandated leave like FMLA, Worker’s Comp, Paid Sick Leave, Military Leave, or Jury Duty, or Discretionary leave like personal leave or bereavement, they are leaves that need to be addressed. These different situations can harm productivity, and create “burn-out for those still at work” while sometimes deflating morale as well. You need to take a strategic evaluation of the situation, so I would like to share some thought out, rational, tips to help you to handle it all and to keep up morale and productivity! No, the answer is not to make people come back from vacation, or not take it – Take a look!

Make sure you establish, document and publicize time-off policies to include Federal and State mandated leave policies or discretionary leaves. They can be spelled out in a handbook, or in a benefit policy document, but they should be written and have all of the requirements listed to enable the employees to understand what is expected of them when these situations come up, and sometimes, even knowing that you have that policy. You would be surprised to know that many employees do not know about Mandated leave, much less some discretionary leave. Whether you offer Paid Time Off, Vacation, Sick and/or Personal leave, ensure understanding of the policies themselves, and ensure that your employees understand how you will determine whose request will be honored when two employees request the same week, or day, etc. off. For vacation, common approaches are “first come/first served” or “tenure”. Be consistent to avoid the appearance of “favoritism” (Remember – No good deed goes unpunished) or even “discrimination” – which is always a liability.

Once you have all the basics handled, here are a few best practices to help you handle the process when those pesky unexpected leaves crop up. Think: EPS

E – Show Empathy

Show empathy when an unexpected time away will leave you short staffed. First and foremost, make sure you have a confidential, empathetic discussion with the employee to understand the parameters of the leave (if at all possible), and to show that the organization is concerned about them and wishes to work with them to find the best outcome for them and the organization. This ensures that all prescribed rights, responsibilities, laws and policies are adhered to, and it helps to make the employee feel “listened to and needed”. Suppose someone comes to HR and says they need to discuss a confidential situation with them that requires them to discuss the leave with a manager, they may tell the employee that this “non-medical” leave needs to be discussed with their manager to ensure proper coverage in the organization in their absence. We suggest that you ask the employee’s permission to have the manager join in this discussion to see how this can all be worked out so it is agreeable to all. Remember, most employees are very interested in doing a good job, and many will be upset that they are “putting the organization out”. This empathetic discussion shows them that you are reasonable, you understand that life happens to us all and it shows that you respect them as a good contributor.

P – Protect

Protect your organization and require that employees complete all required documentation. We know that everyone hates the paperwork, but please ensure it is completed properly, to minimize liability, and maximize efficiency. In your efforts to be empathetic and keep your employees’ best interests in the forefront, you may want to say, “Go do what you need to and let us know what’s going on when you can.” This approach seems reasonable and empathetic, but it may put you in jeopardy as you may not have a good grasp of the situation, and may not be able to competently adhere to government regulations or even stick to your own policies; your employees or organization may be harmed in some way if you do not get a complete grasp of the situation. You may require doctor’s notes, and FMLA paperwork from the doctor, that is standard for FMLA leave and it needs to be kept confidential, and under lock and key! Make sure all company policies are followed consistently!

S- Support

Support the employee and the organization by rallying your team. While doing this, always keep confidences shared with you by any employee. If there are medical reasons for the leave, keep the specific medical condition confidential and do not share it with others in the organization. You may discuss the fact that someone is on FMLA leave with that person’s manager. Just remember to NEVER share the medical reason. That will betray a trust, and it is also illegal for you to share. If this leave is a personal one and does not have any medical information involved, you may share this information with the manager, if the employee is agreeable to the disclosure. Share what you can with the team and ask for their feedback on how to remain productive. You may be surprised at how they will come together to help out their colleague and the organization if asked. If possible, have the employee’s supervisor involved to the maximum level allowed, but only if the employee is comfortable with that. Often, the employee will have some possible ideas about how to address a backup for themselves. Listen to them and allow them to share their ideas, and share those with the manager if appropriate. Sometimes the best solutions come from the employee, as they know the position best!

Remember, all leaves have their challenges, and many are mandated by law, or just good business to have people take time away in “body” when you know their minds will be absent anyway!

You can get through this, and keep the organization moving forward with forethought and planning! Just make sure you follow EPS!

Lois Krause

Lois Krause


With 25+ years of experience, Lois Krause's HR strengths include labor law, employee relations, OD, and performance management. Lois has advanced HR certifications.


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