How to Respond to an Employee Serious Illness

June 11, 2018

Human resource professionals tackle a range of issues in their jobs: some everyday problems and some that could have dire consequences if mismanaged. Most are prepared for questions about insurance or vacation time, but even the savviest HR pro can be caught off guard when an employee discloses a serious illness.

HR Needs to Sell Its Value

It's not uncommon for employees to have a closer relationship to their manager than to HR, so it makes sense that HR is often the last to know about an illness. After hearing that a direct report is ill, it's easy for a manager to bypass HR, give the employee a wink and a nod, grant as much personal time off as necessary and leave it to the employee to figure out the rest.

Line managers who try to handle HR issues aren't likely to be successful. Despite a manager's good intentions in trying to help the employee, there still must be a separation between health issues and performance issues.

To keep these handshake deals from becoming standard operating procedure, HR needs to consistently stress to all staff members that it can provide valuable experience and resources to a colleague in crisis. HR needs to "sell" its value, which requires getting out from behind a desk, talking to employees, and building relationships with both management and staff.

HR keeps employees from having to disclose medical information to their manager, who makes decisions about job assignments, promotions and pay. It's best to keep performance evaluation and private medical information separate if possible.

Employee Next Steps

When an employee discloses a serious illness, HR can provide options such as:

  • If the employer has 50 or more employees, the employee can take a leave of absence under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which would give him 12 weeks of unpaid leave but full group health coverage. Additionally, the employee's job and salary would be protected.
  • If offered by the employer, take short-term disability (STD). Typically, employees can expect to receive between 40 percent and 70 percent of gross weekly income.
  • If offered by employer, take long-term disability (LTD) once STD expired. Typically, LTD pays between 50 percent and 60 percent of gross weekly income. Generally, LTD pays an employee for two years, but the duration can change depending on the employer's policy.
  • Job reassignment or other reasonable under accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Saying Goodbye

HR professionals make a lot of lemonade out of lemons throughout their careers, but what HR can't do is manage the grieving process.

Whether an employee chooses to leave voluntarily or is terminated, eventually the ill employee will no longer work at the organization. Undoubtedly, some will feel a loss.

When an employee leaves voluntarily, it might be appropriate to host a party with the employee's friends and family in attendance. Sometimes the organization will invite the former employee to company parties or to help celebrate milestones, such as someone else's retirement.

Before an employee leaves, HR needs to be clear with the staff that once the employee departs for the last time, HR cannot provide personal information, so if anyone wants to stay in touch, it's a good idea for employees to exchange contact information.