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by HR Guy | March 31, 2009

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Dear HR Guy:

At our company of about 200 people, we have the standard bereavement policy that an employee can take off five days for the loss of a spouse, child, or parent. Recently, one of our employees experienced a sudden loss in her immediate family. The employee took off the five days of bereavement, plus an additional week of unused vacation time. She is now back in the office, but it is obvious to everyone that she is still grieving and not ready to return to work. One of the managers in the HR department approached the woman and spoke with her about this. The employee was honest enough to say that she is having a hard time concentrating on work, but also needs to continue working because her finances are more strained than ever now. Everyone here really feels for her. She is a very valued employee, and we would like to see her bounce back professionally and personally. However, we have this policy and don't know any way to get around that issue. Any advice you can offer is greatly appreciated.

Sincerely,
Sympathetic HR Manager

Dear Sympathetic HR Manager:

I've held jobs over the years at a number of companies where the five-day policy you mention is the norm. I've always looked upon such policies with more than a little disdain. It is certainly understandable that a company can't function if it gives employees unlimited amounts of leave. However, it is even more understandable that someone who has lost a close family member--especially when, as in this case, it is unexpected--might not be up to the demands of coming into the office each day so soon after the loss. The impact of this loss, plus the pressure to perform on the job is probably too much for your employee at this time. And this person is luckier than most in that she had the vacation time available to her that allowed her to take an extra week off.

What I'm hearing from you is that people within the company feel some compassion toward this person and would like to do something to help. Immediately, a few suggestions that could be effective come to my mind. Firstly, the entrenched five-day rule needs to go. Not just at your company, but across the board. Grief doesn't operate on a stopwatch. It would be wonderful if every company could make at least 10 paid days off available to an employee who lost a parent, child, or spouse. Of course, not every company will, and the owners of many smaller companies won't feel they're able to give away that kind of time. But if you can change your policy to grant more days to a grieving employee, you should do so. Keep in mind that I'm only saying to make 10 days available. Many people will want to come back to work sooner because they'll want an outlet for their time and to be around other people. So don't feel that just because you offer 10 days that everyone will take you up on it. Also, as many companies do, you can offer fewer days, say two to four, for the death of a friend or family member who isn't a close relative. (But remember, people often need to travel for funerals, so providing anything less than two days will be viewed as unfair.)

Secondly, this is exactly the type of situation when your employee should be taking advantage of all the benefits your employee assistance program (EAP) has to offer. Hopefully, you have one because this program could do everything from setting up bereavement counseling for the employee and other members of the family to researching local charities that would accept the personal belongings of the deceased loved one, to trying to help resolve unsettled issues regarding life insurance. If you don't have an EAP at your company, check with your health insurance provider to see what kind of help they can offer regarding counseling.

Also, don't forget that the company can be creative when it comes to setting up the policy. For instance, other employees can pledge a day or two of their own yearly vacation time to help out fellow employees in distress. While not widespread, it is becoming more common for companies to allow employees to "withdraw" days from a "bank" of time created by other employees. Some companies make employees purchase extra days from the bank, while others just give them away. Collecting days can be achieved through a periodic drive in which the company asks volunteers to give up vacation days, which would then be stockpiled until they were needed, or you can do it as emergency situations arise. Just keep in mind that if you only request vacation donations on a case-by-case basis, the company could be accused of considering some employees' hardships more important than those of other employees. A similar measure would involve allowing employees to create a bank of actual funds that could be given to employees in dire circumstances. Employees wishing to donate could give anything from $1 to $10, which would be pooled and held by the company for employees experiencing financial hardship. The employee could fill out a short application specifying their financial needs, and if approved the company could make the payment for mortgage, utilities, or other bills directly.

Another thing you can do, depending upon the demands of this person's position, is offer her the opportunity to work part time. Allowing her to work two or three days a week for a month or two would provide her with a smaller, but steady paycheck, while taking the pressure of a full-time job off her shoulders. She could have things, such settling an estate or counseling that require her time during the day. Just knowing she has the time during the week to attend to these matters could be a huge relief for her. It would probably also save the company the time and expense of recruiting a replacement or having to hire a temp if she were to take off completely for a few months. Coworkers could probably take care of her duties on the days she was out. Unlike my other suggestions, the company's ability to offer this solution would probably depend upon the duties of the employee.

Of course, if you follow through on any of these suggestions, you'll want to tailor the rules of the program to fit the needs of your company. This includes stipulating the maximum amount of time an employee could take off, the number of times employees could seek financial assistance in a given time period, and the maximum amount of financial assistance you'd give. Also, since management will need to approve any changes in policy, consider whether you can get away with radically overhauling it or if minor adjustments are the best way to go.

Again, you, your fellow workers, and your company are to be commended for caring so much about your coworker at a time when downsizings have left many employees feeling dispensable and too busy watching their own backs to care about what's happening in the cubicle a few feet away. Best of luck to you and your employee.

HR Guy

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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