FMLA Screaming (Part I)

The Family and Medical Leave Act.  A great idea that causes many HR pros to scream, pull out their hair, and/or outsource their frustration.  So much so, there’s even a blog dedicated to it.  (Read it, Jeff is both funny and smart.)  Even though can be incredibly frustrating, it’s a fact of life that can be made easier by approaching it with a sense of calm and a smidge of empathy. This post includes some basic advice when dealing with FMLA issues.

First off, by in large, employees are not out to “game the system.”  Yes, we’ve all heard of FMLA/ADA/Work Comp fraud.  It is a thing.  However, most employees do not ask for leave to pull one over on their employer.  With that, let’s assume an employee who requests FMLA actually needs leave for herself or her family.  The need for leave is already distressing to the employee.  She is likely worried about her job, and she is also worried about herself or her family.  Focusing only on the impact to the employer will not support her needs in this time of emotional chaos.  Be supportive.

The employee may not know exactly what to do when she needs a leave.  So, she’s going to look at your handbook to find some information.  She will likely do this before she talks with HR.  Make sure your handbook is up-to-date, complete, and explains who to talk to about leave.  If she does not look at your handbook, she is probably going to talk to a trusted co-worker.  Hopefully, this co-worker will know just enough to tell her to talk to her manager.

Next, she will probably say something to her manager.  She might not say “leave.”  She might say “time off” or other words that indicate that she may need a leave.  This requires managers to understand the signals of a leave request, and this requires manager training.  Managers – especially new managers – need to know enough to understand what these signals are and what to do when they see, hear, or otherwise get an inkling that leave is an issue.  If they do, they will send the employee to HR.

Now that she’s made the request, HR needs to use the Department of Labor forms.  I joke when I’m speaking on FMLA topics that HR pros are not graphic designers.  Department of Labor makes the best forms for FMLA.  Nobody creates better forms.  More than 10 of my clients have made the mistake of using a vendor’s forms and not the DOL’s only to come to learn that the vendor didn’t have a very important question on its form that resulted in a loss of sleep, thousands in more settlement dollars, or confusion on the part of the employer and the employee.  Here’s the link to the forms.  Bookmark it.  One more tip:  Always go back to this page.  The forms get updated from time-to-time so the most up-to-date forms will be at this link.  Please do not print off 10-100 copies and stick them in a file cabinet.  Print a new set every time an employee requests leave.

Remember the cadence of the forms.  FMLA regulations set out when forms must be doled out and returned.  Understand these timelines and make sure you – the employer – follows them closely.  The DOL’s FMLA Employer Guide does a great job outlining these.  Bookmark it as well.

If an employee doesn’t turn in the forms on time, use K8’s rule of three (trademark pending) – request the employee return the forms three different times and document each of those attempts over a period of several days.  Send an email to her personal email.  Send a letter.  Send a text message (and screenshot the text).  If she still does not respond and is capable of responding (isn’t in a coma or otherwise hospitalized), then talk to your friendly neighborhood employment attorney.

Next, calm the manager by being proactive.  Managers can freak out about losing an employee to a leave.  They get nervous about how work is going to get done.  They worry about how and if other employees will be able to pick up the slack.  Go to managers with a plan.  Ask if they will need temporary help, an employee from another team who could step in on a temporary basis, or if another hire will be needed since the team was already overworked.  Approaching a manager with some options will help calm some likely frazzled nerves.

Tomorrow’s post will have some more tips on the FMLA, including what to do during the leave and preparing for a return to work.  In the meantime, consider this:  There is a difference between strict FMLA compliance that follows the letter of the law and being a bit more flexible with employees.  Relying on the strict letter may not seem fair to the employee.

Photo by Gem & Lauris RK on Unsplash

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