Our nonprofit has an employee who has been with us five years. She is a good worker who has always been able to balance work and personal needs well.
Until the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
This employee has three school-age children whose school closed because of the coronavirus in the spring of this year. The employee was provided paid leave under the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act (EPSLA) and expanded Family Medical Leave (expanded FMLA) when the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) was passed. That paid leave has now been entirely exhausted.
After the school physically reopened at the beginning of the school year, and her children returned to on-campus classes, the employee returned to work. However, shortly after the school reopened, there was an outbreak. And there have been several starts and stops ever since due to continued community and student breakouts of the virus. As a consequence of this interrupted schedule, we have noticed some departures from the employee’s usual high-performance standards.
Our employee now needs more time off to take care of her children and to support them during periods of virtual learning. Her position is not one that would easily permit her to do her job remotely. While we do have an unpaid personal leave policy, we are reluctant to provide more leave since the work she does requires sustained consistency and attention to detail, which, as I mentioned, seems to be slipping anyway. Since we know of no other leaves of absence available to her, we may, regrettably, need to separate.
Any thoughts on how we can help this employee care for her family in this difficult time, yet not harm our nonprofit in doing so?
Wanting to Help
Dear Wanting to Help:
Unfortunately, what you have described is playing out in real time in thousands of workplaces, and homes, across the nation.
One of the things the pandemic has taught us is that many of the rules and tools we have traditionally used to deal with HR issues are no longer valid or useful in today’s circumstances. In earlier times, the response to the situation you describe would have been easy: “No more leave? We need the work done — you’re fired!”
Although, that message would have been more politely expressed.
Now, delivering such a message, even in the most politic of terms, fails to consider and appreciate the helplessness and desperation this employee—and innumerable others—are experiencing every day when having to confront the choice between taking care of themselves and their families and sacrificing their careers and livelihood.
As trite as it may sound, if there’s anything the pandemic has done to benefit the workplace, especially nonprofits, it’s that it has led to a renewal of the golden rule, both in letter and in spirit. To the greatest extent possible, empathy and compassion should now play a role in every difficult HR decision and action.
How can this be done in your situation when, at first blush, there seems to be no way to reconcile the dilemma?
Try this approach:
- Express your concerns with the employee. Explain that you want to help resolve the situation in everyone’s best interest—which would also include clients and people the nonprofit serves, whose wellbeing might be adversely affected by the issues the employee is facing—and that keeping minds and options open are the best way to do so.
- Ask the employee what solutions she would suggest or what she would like to see to resolve this situation.
- Be creative and engaging, not disengaging, in discussing available options.
- Honestly and creatively review the personal leave of absence policy to see whether there really is any harm in providing the leave in this case. This would include talking with the employee about how much time she realistically needs, discussing the impact of not having job protection or income for this period of time, and also thinking through options for providing some income, such as unemployment benefits or other available employer paid leave, assuming it does not financially burden the nonprofit. It would also be a good idea to enlist the employee’s ideas on how to deal with the negative effects of her taking this leave.
- Consider some financial support to assist the employee. For example, if the employee’s children’s care is what requires her being home, offer to help secure an alternative source of daycare if possible.
- Reevaluate the option to telework or work remotely. It is important to not be too hasty to rule out this option. Explore all angles of this possibility, including discussing how the work can be completed remotely: what technology options are, alternative scheduling, and how performance can be monitored. As we have also learned from the pandemic, working remotely is a new reality in the HR world, and its expanded use has certainly allowed more employees to keep their jobs and more employers to get their needed work done than one would have thought in earlier times was possible.
- Remind the employee that empathy works both ways. It is important to discuss with her, as it’s the employee who is usually in the best position to appreciate this, how the nonprofit’s mission and service to others might be adversely affected if she can’t return in some form to handle her duties and tasks.
This kind of interactive, flexible, and, yes, empathetic approach may work to create a mutually satisfactory compromise that prevents you from losing a highly skilled, highly valued employee.
Empathy and flexibility also play a role in dealing with performance issues that might develop in the wake of the pandemic. Supervisors should always let employees know that they are aware of the impact of Covid-19 both on employees’ personal well-being and on the work they do.
Supervisors should also take measures to let employees know they can expect cooperation and understanding if they’re having problems handling work pressures and juggling responsibilities as they cope with the impact of Covid-19 in their lives. An “open door policy”—digital or otherwise—should be in effect, so that employees can readily discuss their issues and concerns with supervisors and management. This will help you to head off serious problems early on.
Remember that if a supervisor sees an employee demonstrating signs of succumbing to the enormous pressures of the pandemic, signs such as social withdrawal, performance issues, or unexplained changes in behavior, don’t wait for the employee to knock on your “open door.” Be proactive in engaging with that employee to offer support in helping them to deal with this difficult new world and the challenges it presents. Offer them time off, the opportunity to get professional assistance, and reassurance that they are not alone in having to face these pressures or in finding solutions to them.
You may not always be successful in helping employees in these uncertain times. For example, one of the considerations of providing this assistance to employees is ensuring that the interests of the nonprofit are not sacrificed in light of the many challenges, financial and otherwise, that nonprofits face in these times. However, consistently adopting this kind of approach will strengthen your relationships with these employees and your entire workforce. Remember, too, that there are many measures of success. Demonstrating basic decency and humanity, especially in response to the demanding pressures of the workplace, is one such measure.
A final thought: What we are all facing now as the pandemic continues to take its toll is not something most of us imagined we would ever have to deal with. In the workplace, while we want our employees to be productive, engaged, and dedicated to their nonprofit employer’s mission, we must realize and understand that, for many of us, there is an existential and omnipresent distraction keeping us from perfectly fulfilling those expectations.
As employers, we can only adapt to, and deal with, the ramifications of this deep distraction. We can’t make it go away. In doing our best to deal with the effects of the pandemic, the generous use of empathy, understanding, and flexibility is necessary to ensure that we help our employees, and in turn, our nonprofits survive and flourish.
After all, isn’t this what you would like to see happen if the roles were reversed?
Mike Bishop is a member of the State Bar of California and has been admitted to practice in a number of federal district courts in both California and Ohio. During his legal career, Mike worked for 32 years with a Sacramento law firm, where he focused on employment litigation in both state and federal courts. During that time, he defended employers in litigation. In 2016, he began his work as an Employment Risk Manager for the Nonprofits Insurance Alliance, assisting nonprofits in evaluating employment risks. Mike lives in Lakewood, Ohio, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with a bachelor’s degree in political science, and a 1982 graduate of the University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law.
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