Employees request a leave of absence for myriad reasons, including having a baby, bonding with a newly adopted child, recovering from a serious illness or caring for a sick family member. Some of these types of extended leaves fall under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), but other types are up to the discretion of an employer. For leaves of absences not covered under FMLA—such as sabbaticals, graduate school, extended vacations and the death of a relative—employers should develop a leave of absence policy to govern them.

These policies should protect the company and minimize any detrimental effects caused by an employee’s absence, while accommodating the needs of valuable employees. Michelle Thompson, director of human resources at XMI, offers a few pointers for companies to consider when creating a leave of absence policy:

Don’t inadvertently discriminate with your leave of absence policy

Since a leave of absence policy involves a lot of complexities it’s important for a business to work with an HR professional to craft one that addresses different scenarios.

“Paid maternity leave is a popular and prevalent benefit right now,” Thompson says. “A lot of companies want to provide it, but there are some pitfalls to avoid.” Instead of paid maternity leave, for example, XMI recommends a paid family leave policy that includes male employees who want to take paternity leave or adoption leave, for instance.

“You can still differentiate, but there’s a smart way to do it so your policies don’t discriminate against an unintended group or seclude a segment of your workforce,” she says. “You never want an employee to say, ‘Hey, what about me?’”

Consider the financial and operational ramifications of your leave of absence policy

Many companies want to provide paid leave for a variety of reasons, but then they fail to consider all the consequences of an “anything is permissible” philosophy.

An HR professional can guide companies towards realistic policies that don’t put the company in complicated financial or legal straits—or stress out other employees who have to pick up the slack.

“Let’s say a company, in an effort to be non-discriminatory, provides an 8-week paid leave to everyone,” Thompson explains. “But if that company is also providing short and long-term insurance, why would they also offer eight weeks of paid leave? They would basically be paying for something twice. A consultant asks those kinds of probing questions.”

Outline the specifics of your leave of absence policy

Be clear on the maximum length of time allowed and whether the job will be held when the employee returns. “Most businesses allow up to six weeks or eight weeks max, and all companies I’ve worked with hold the positions until the person comes back,” Thompson reports. “That said, there are circumstances that could force the company not to hold the job, such as a significant change in their business or the loss of a large contract.”

Don’t make up a leave of absence policy on the fly

It’s crucial that every company develop some type of leave policy even if they’re too small to have to provide FMLA, or even if the type of leave that an employee requests isn’t required under federal law. It’s better to have the policy and not need it than to have to develop one too quickly.

“I’ve seen companies really have to scramble when an emergency happens to an employee, and they don’t have a leave of absence policy in place,” Thompson says. “Not having a policy can cause a company to inadvertently give permission to an employee without fully considering the impact of that decision. Maybe a policy isn’t financially feasible or causes problems among employees. A spelled-out policy helps to mitigate these risks.”

Need help developing a realistic leave of absence policy for your workers? XMI can help. Get in touch at 615-248-9255 or info@xmigrowth.com to learn more about our human resources outsourcing (HRO) and Professional Employer Organization (PEO) services.

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