What Employers Should Know About Trauma in the Workplace

2008 was a difficult year. The Great Recession was underway. People lived in a constant state of worry. In workplaces across the country, employees informally gathered after official meetings, trying to decipher what their leaders had shared and what information they’d held back. If the larger implications of the recession were abstract and theoretical, the possibility of layoffs felt very real.

If you worked during this time and didn’t lose your job, you probably had friends and acquaintances who did. Your leaders may have done their best to keep you updated as you pondered the fate of your employment, but that didn’t stop the whispered discussions in the hallways and bathrooms. You may have wondered what the real story was, when decisions would be made, and what would happen to your livelihood. It was a time when people were expected to continue to work as they had before—or put in even more effort—all while raises and benefits were on the chopping block.

In the aftermath, some people felt pressured to pretend nothing remarkable had happened. Their leaders wanted them to carry on, push forward, and, most importantly, not talk about the hard business decisions that were made or the pain those decisions caused. The struggle was real, but that stark reality wasn’t acknowledged out in the open. As a result, both those who lost their jobs and those who didn’t felt anxious, confused, insecure, and distrustful.

At the time, you might not have referred to the mere prospect of a layoff as a “traumatic event.” But it was. Trauma is an emotional response to a distressing experience. And that recession was most definitely distressing. It caused deep and widespread psychological harm. It affected people’s mental health at a time when society took mental health much less seriously than it does now.

When a distressing event occurs in or affects the workplace, leaders need to be ready and able to support their employees before, during, and after the event. That goes whether the event has its source in the workplace—like a layoff, acquisition, or serious workplace injury or death—or impacts the workplace from the outside—like a pandemic, natural disaster, or act of violence.

Responding to traumatic events poorly (or not at all) can make a bad situation much worse. In fact, an inadequate response to trauma can itself become a source of additional distress.

Let’s examine how you can prepare your workplace to weather a traumatic event, support your employees throughout its duration, and help them process their emotions in the aftermath.

Preparing for Traumatic Events

First, you must build trust with your employees before things get bad. If you don’t start from a place of trust before something bad happens, it will be difficult to establish it when you are in the middle of a stressful, chaotic, and challenging situation. To create relationships built in trust, act with transparency, clarity, and consistency. Demonstrate that you care personally for your people. Show them the trust that you want them to show you.

Second, plan for trauma. You may already have plans in the event of emergencies, disasters, or major business disruptions. Make sure those plans account for the emotional state of employees during and after the event. Train managers to recognize signs of distress and what’s in (and not in) their power to manage. Emphasize the importance of transparency, clarity, and consistency. You don’t want to make matters worse by acting chaotically.

Third, establish a communication plan for emergency situations. Employees should know where to go for important, up-to-date information. Leaders should know who will be involved in these communications—who initiates, who reviews, and when and how the communication is shared with employees.

Fourth, practice. Review your plans and run through them on a regular basis so leaders understand their role. Share these plans with your employees as appropriate. Not everyone will read them, but putting in the effort will gain you some trust with many employees.

Navigating Traumatic Events

We all know you can plan and plan and plan and plan, but when a moment of crisis comes, you begin to panic. That’s okay. Take a moment to breathe and calm yourself. Bring your response team together and get organized. Outline what needs to happen, including communications that should go out to employees. Make sure everyone is on the same page.

You will want to have multiple ways for messages to be shared as your employees will likely not receive messages at the same time, especially if you have people on multiple shifts. If you’re conducting a layoff, for example, meet with each affected employee individually (as you are able) and be sure you are giving them all the necessary information. Then follow up in writing, as these employees will likely be in shock and not remember much of what you said.

Act with empathy and sensitivity to those who are most affected. Sometimes, well-meaning leaders emphasize their own pain at a time when their employees are hurting. Less well-meaning leaders sometimes act in callous or dismissive ways, treating their employees as if they are disposable. Both of these approaches to distressing situations break down trust. They also have a chance to become viral news online, at great reputation risk to the organization.

Responding to Trauma When Things Calm Down

When the dust settles, you may be ready to return to “normal,” but that’s not going to happen. Your world has changed. You need to help your employees adjust to this “new normal” and recognize that the past isn’t coming back.

Your employees will need time to process the event and their feelings about it. Share information about your employee assistance program (EAP), if you have one. Create spaces for employees to connect and talk about the changes. Prepare managers to listen. The trauma following the death of a coworker, for example, will affect the workplace long after the funeral. Grief is personal and not everyone will react in the way you think they might.

In a case like this, you’d want to give your employees time and space to process the event and their feelings, while also providing them with information they need to prepare themselves for what comes next. For example, it could be jarring for employees to see their deceased coworker’s job posted. They may feel as though you are pushing them to a place they aren’t ready to go to yet. Giving them a heads up may help them prepare themselves emotionally to see the job posting.

You cannot shy away from the events you all collectively went through, nor should you sweep the memory of it under the rug and pretend it didn’t happen. Being upfront and honest about the experience will be a huge benefit to your employees working through their experience and what it means to them. Trauma will always get its say, but it doesn’t have to have the last word.

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What is Discrimination?

A hiring manager, eager to fill an exciting new role in the company, reacquaints himself with a candidate’s resume as that candidate takes a seat across from him. Looking up, the hiring manager jolts involuntarily, surprised to see a gray-haired man likely in his late 50s—a much older person than he had envisioned for this cutting-edge job. While the interview goes well, the hiring manager feels that the candidate’s age makes him a bad fit.

Elsewhere, a vice president ponders which project manager would be the best person to assign responsibility for the development of a new feature on the company’s signature app. Contingencies aside, the choice is clear: Mikalah has had far and away the most success of anyone on the team and is eager to jump into this new assignment. But Mikalah announced last week that she’s pregnant, and while she hasn’t yet requested leave, the VP assumes Mikalah won’t be able to do as good a job this time around. After a moment’s consideration, the VP opts to assign the project to Doug.

After receiving complaints about unequal pay, an HR director conducts a pay audit of their workplace, discovering that the complaints have merit. By and large, men in the company are paid more than women, and in many cases, the disparities seem to be based only on gender. Merit, seniority, and productivity didn’t seem to enter the equation.

Each of these scenarios illustrates what discrimination can look like in the workplace. Discrimination occurs when people are treated differently or less favorably; it becomes illegal in the employment setting when it’s because a person belongs to a protected group.

Discrimination is often harmful, jeopardizing people’s jobs and careers, adding to their stress, and putting their health at risk. Employers who engage in or tolerate unlawful discrimination can face devastating lawsuits.

Antidiscrimination Law

Under federal law, it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against an applicant or employee based on age (40 or older), disability, genetic information, national origin, race or color, religion, and sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation). These are called protected classes. Federal law also prohibits discrimination against an individual who complains about discrimination, files a charge of discrimination, or participates in an employment discrimination investigation or lawsuit.

Federal antidiscrimination laws include, but aren’t limited to, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), Equal Pay Act, Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (including the Pregnancy Discrimination Act). You can learn about the requirements of these laws, what exactly they prohibit, and the employee counts at which they apply on the platform.

State laws may offer additional protections to employees as well. For example, a number of states have amended their employment discrimination laws to specifically define race as including traits associated with race, including hair texture and protective hairstyles. Information about these laws is also available on the platform.

It’s worth noting that discrimination doesn’t have to be deliberate to be unlawful. Discriminatory outcomes, intentional or not, can put your organization in a world of hurt.

Types of Unlawful Discrimination

Unlawful discrimination will generally fall into one of the following categories:

  1. Unfair treatment, which occurs when an employee or applicant is treated differently than others who are similarly situated because of a protected class or protected conduct.
  2. Disparate impact, which can happen when a neutral employment policy or practice disproportionately impacts persons within a protected class.
  3. Failing to undertake certain actions prohibited or required by law. For example, failing to reasonably accommodate a known disability of an employee or applicant.
  4. Harassment, which is unwelcome conduct that is based on a protected class. This includes sexual harassment. Harassment becomes unlawful when either enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment or the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.
  5. Retaliation, which is punishing an employee (or treating them unfavorably) for complaining about job discrimination or assisting with a job discrimination proceeding, like an investigation or lawsuit.

The best way to avoid discrimination is to base employment decisions only on factors that are job-related.

Responding to a Complaint

If you receive a complaint that an employee has violated your discrimination policy, conduct a complete and well-documented investigation into the allegations. Assume neither guilt nor innocence and make no promise of a particular outcome. Speak with the employee who made the complaint, the accused employee, and any witnesses they name. Ask open-ended, non-accusatory questions.

Once the investigation is complete, document your conclusions and actions taken. If you determine the accused employee did in fact violate the company’s discrimination or other workplace policy, take the appropriate disciplinary measures, which, depending on the severity of the behavior, may include termination of employment. A memo summarizing the findings should be placed in the accused employee’s file.

It is then important to inform both the accused employee and the accuser about the conclusions of the investigation and any disciplinary measures taken. The complaining employee doesn’t need to know the specific disciplinary action, just that appropriate corrective action was taken. In some situations, it may be advisable to separate employees to limit the potential for future incidents, but care should be taken so this step doesn’t have a negative impact on the employee who raised the complaint.

Companies that do not make changes substantial enough to eliminate discrimination once they become aware of it face greater liability in the event of future issues. You can help reduce risk related to discrimination complaints by conducting a quick, thorough, fair, and well-documented investigation, followed by steps to minimize the risk of such actions happening in the future.

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HR’s Role in a Recession

The prospect of a recession has many businesses and their employees worried. During an extended economic decline, sales drop, jobs disappear, and productivity decreases. Companies have less revenue to invest, and their customers have less money to spend. With their lives shaken by financial instability, people are more motivated to play it safe and less inclined to take risks.

We make no prediction about whether a recession is near. But with the possibility of one on the horizon and the inevitability of one eventually, everyone working in HR ought to be prepared when the time comes. A recession hits more than just your bank account. Stress grows. Tensions mount. Morale falls. People become less productive simply because they’re preoccupied with their personal finances. Each of these affect the bottom line.

HR’s role in a recession is to mitigate stress, resolve tensions, maintain morale, and ensure employees continue to be rewarded for their hard work. This is what HR should be doing all of the time, of course, but economic downturns come with their own challenges. Respect and empathy are key. Let’s look at a few of these challenges and what you can do in response.

Heightened Uncertainty About the Future

If a recession nears or begins in earnest, employees will be worried about how it might affect them. Will their pay be cut? Will they lose their job? Will their retirement savings evaporate? It’s difficult to plan or act when you don’t know what’s going to happen. For some people, waiting for the possibility of bad news induces as much anxiety as receiving that bad news.

Whether your business is booming or struggling, be as transparent as you can be. If your business looks poised to do well despite the overall downturn, deliver that message to employees. Give them that confidence. If navigating the recession will demand more efficient work from everyone, clearly communicate those goals, don’t sugarcoat the consequences if those goals aren’t met, and show your appreciation when they’re achieved. Whatever the case, don’t mislead employees. If you do, they’ll find out eventually and remember not to trust you in the future.

Employee Financial Hardships

A recession doesn’t hit everyone in a company the same way. Even if your organization fares well, the finances of your employees may not be so hot. Their 401(k)s may be tanking. An employee you just gave a raise to may still be worried about paying rent because their spouse or partner lost their job or their roommate had to move away.

Be mindful that your employees’ experiences during a recession will vary widely. Some may take bad news harder or feel less celebratory when there’s good news to share. Don’t assume that employee morale is high just because quarterly financials are on the rise. In times like these, empathy is invaluable. Keep a pulse on what your people are feeling. Point them in the direction of helpful resources.

Layoffs

Recessions sometimes lead to layoffs. A layoff occurs when you terminate the employment relationship because there’s no work available for the employee to do, the company can’t afford to pay for the work, or the company will completely close.

There’s no sense denying it: layoffs are stressful for everyone. That said, conducting layoffs poorly adds a lot of unnecessary stress, increases the chance of lost revenue, and may expose companies to liability. When considering and administering layoffs, keep the following in mind:

  • Learn about your compliance obligations regarding layoffs. The federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN), which applies to employers with 100 or more full-time employees, requires 60 days’ notice before a mass layoff or business closing. Many states have their own versions (mini-WARNs) that kick in at a lower employee count, so be sure to check state law too. Your state unemployment insurance law may have notice requirements as well.
  • Be doubly sure that layoffs are absolutely necessary and that you’re letting the right number of people go. Layoffs mean less work gets done, period. Unless you’re shutting down, you need at least enough people remaining to keep the business running. Quickly rehiring people because you underestimated how much work needed to be done to stay afloat won’t inspire confidence and will likely lead to confusion around to shifting job duties.
  • Determine whether the layoff will be temporary or permanent. If you intend to rehire laid-off employees later, let the employees know and keep them apprised of developments or changes in your plans. You’ll be scrambling if you’re ready to rehire workers at some point and no one can or wants to return. Also, given the waiting times for unemployment insurance, being on-again, off-again with employees can seriously interfere with their income.
  • Be fair and non-discriminatory. Base your layoff decisions on legitimate business reasons and document those reasons.
  • Comply with laws regarding final pay. Many states require that you pay an employee much sooner than their next regular payday if they’re discharged or laid off. If your state law doesn’t address layoffs specifically, we recommend using the deadline that applies to terminations. If your state law doesn’t set a deadline for final paychecks at all, we recommend paying no later than the next regular payday.

Reduced Hours and Pay Cuts

In addition or as an alternative to layoffs, you might consider reducing hours or pay, but there are rules to follow here as well, and morale is sure to take a hit.

Employers generally have the right to reduce the number of hours an employee works. If you plan to send an employee home before the end of their shift, check state law for reporting time pay. Other restrictions may apply as well—review any contracts you have as well as relevant state or local laws. Exempt employees aren’t paid by the hour, so just reducing their hours won’t in itself lower their pay and save your company money.

If you still need a lot of work done, but can’t make the finances work, pay cuts may be your best bet. You can reduce the rate of pay of nonexempt employees as long as you keep it above the federal, state, and local minimum wages, still pay overtime when applicable, and don’t make the change retroactively.

You can also reduce the salary of exempt employees as long as they don’t fall below the federal and state minimum salary thresholds and, as with nonexempt employees, you don’t reduce the pay retroactively. In addition, to avoid violating the salary basis requirement for exempt employees, any change should be ongoing rather than fluctuating frequently. Federal law doesn’t require advance notice of pay reductions, but some states do, so be sure to check your state’s requirements.

If you need to reduce exempt employee pay below the minimum salary threshold, you’ll need to reclassify them as nonexempt, pay them at least the minimum wage and overtime as required by law, and provide them with any legally required breaks. Avoid reclassifying employees on a short-term basis, however, as it can look like you’re trying to avoid the rules.

As with layoffs, make your decisions regarding cuts to hours or pay in a fair and nondiscriminatory manner—and document, document, document.

Temptation to Cut Programs Deemed “Nonessential”

When money is tight, you must make sacrifices, but it’s important to remember your commitments and consider the consequences of casting them aside. For example, if an employer had committed to improving diversity, equity, and inclusion at their company, but then quickly opted to cut that program to help make ends meet, its employees would no doubt question whether that was ever truly a priority. All the work done as part of that effort could be jeopardized. The company’s reputation in the labor market could suffer.

Take care when deciding what programs and practices to stop. People assess an organization’s values based on where it spends (and doesn’t spend) money. What would your choices say about your values? Consider what message your actions will communicate.

If you really have no choice but to cut programs and practices that speak to your values and commitments, be thoughtful about how you communicate these decisions to employees. Transparency is key, as is following through again on these commitments when your company is back on its feet.

Everyone on Edge

Money problems weigh heavily on most people. Patience wears thin, the ability to collaborate with others deteriorates, and peaceful environments become high-pressure ones. In the event of a recession, you can expect people to lose their temper more quickly, long-standing conflicts to escalate, and new drama to erupt. However, don’t tolerate bad behavior.

Instead, address behavioral and performance issues right away, remind everyone that you’re all working for a common purpose, teach your team effective communication skills, and practice conflict resolution strategies. Ignoring drama or otherwise allowing it to fester will only hasten your best employees out the door.

Bottom Line

Recessions are difficult to go through and sometimes require hard choices. Treating people with respect and empathy sets everyone up for success in the long run.

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Five Ways to Promote Mental Health in the Workplace

In a survey by McKinsey & Company, 75 percent of employers acknowledged that there’s a stigma around mental health in the workplace. People in the workplace, leaders included, are afraid to speak up about their mental health needs or ask for help. As the McKinsey report notes, employers can’t solve every problem contributing to poor mental health, but there is work they can do to reduce the stigma around mental health and promote healthy behaviors. We recommend these five actions: 

  1. When possible, give employees a little extra time to slow down and rest. Employees may need a moment to breathe or a day to regain their peace of mind, and they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for time to take care of themselves. The ability to occasionally function at a medium (or even slow) pace should be built into performance expectations so that employees can avoid burnout or breakdown.
  2. Offer paid time off (PTO), mental health benefits, and flexible schedules if appropriate. In some cases, employees may want to get mental health care but can’t afford it. Losing pay from a missed work shift might be too great a hardship, and effective treatments might be financially out of reach. These financial hindrances can exacerbate conditions like anxiety and depression. In other cases, employees can afford the time off and the treatments, but they can’t make regular appointments work with their schedules. If you can offer PTO, health insurance benefits, or flexible schedules, these can help employees get the care they need.
  3. Offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). An EAP gives employees access to expert, confidential assistance for substance abuse issues, relationship troubles, financial problems, and mental health conditions. These services are offered through an outside provider that connects employees with the appropriate resources and professionals. These programs enable you to provide professional assistance to employees in a confidential manner.
  4. Make reasonable accommodations when possible. If an employee informs you that they have anxiety, depression, or another mental health condition that’s affecting their work, begin the interactive process to determine what reasonable accommodation(s) you can provide in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA applies when an employer has 15 or more employees, but many states have similar laws that require employers to make accommodations at an even lower employee count. You can learn more about the ADA on the HR Support Center.
  5. Promote good mental (and physical) health in the workplace. Healthy habits are important for everyone to practice. Consider setting time aside during the week or month for employees to participate in activities like yoga, meditation, and mindfulness that develop and strengthen these habits. If you aren’t familiar with these practices, solicit the help of your employees. One or more of them may know a lot about these activities and be able to assist you in setting up a workplace program or modifying a program for employees currently working from home.

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Invest Time in Onboarding

There’s nothing like a bad onboarding experience to make a new hire regret accepting a job offer. It’ll take a lot of work to restore the employee’s trust if you’re lucky enough to keep them.

A good onboarding process provides new employees with everything they need to be successful. They receive whatever tools, equipment, and instruction they’ll need to do their job. They’re given time to read and reflect on company policies. They’re given time to get acclimated to the new environment. They’re introduced to members of their team and given time to connect with people in the company they’ll be working with closely. Remember that the experience should be reciprocal—onboarding is a time for the company to get to know the new hire better, too. In short, they’re given a warm welcome!

As with hiring, always look for ways to improve the onboarding process. Establish a way for newly onboarded employees to provide feedback anonymously.

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Making the Most of Job Interviews

When interviewing job candidates, time is critical.

The time you spend talking to candidates adds up quickly, especially if you have a lot of great candidates. That has a cost—you’re not getting other important work done. That time also goes by incredibly fast. Within the span of a brief discussion, you have to gather the information you need to make an informed hiring decision and to sell the role to a potential hire. And don’t forget you’re competing with other employers eager to snatch up talent. Every minute counts.

Wasting time also amounts to a bad experience for candidates. Aside from the fact that they have other things going in their lives, you will be asking at least one of them to make a good decision too. A bad decision, on your part or theirs, will likely result in you both parting ways sooner rather than later, compounding the cost of filling the role.

Let’s look at some basic practices that will enable you and your job candidates to make the best use of this time.

Before you conduct any interviews, document what the job entails and what core competencies will be needed to do it. Interviews are not the time to clarify what you want the job to be. If you go into interviews fuzzy about the functions of the job, you won’t be able to assess whether and how well candidates can perform.

Include questions about specific occasions when candidates used those competencies and what the outcome was. For example, if the job you’re hiring for will involve regularly de-escalating tense situations with irate customers, you might ask candidates to tell you about a time in which they were able to calm an irate customer. This method of questioning—called behavioral interviewing—cuts to the chase. You not only get an affirmative or negative answer as to whether the candidate possesses the competencies you need, but also obtain verifiable evidence (or not) that they’ve previously done what they say they can do. For behavioral questions to be most effective, pose the same questions to each candidate and evaluate their responses using the same criteria.

Put your interview team together (if really needed) and coordinate who’s asking what. If the person you hire will be working with multiple people, each with a unique stake in the work being done, it may be prudent to involve some of these employees in the interview process. If several employees will be participating in the interviews, meet with them ahead of time to formulate a plan so there’s no unnecessary overlap in the questions you’ll each be asking.

Connect each response to what’s needed for this new job. After a candidate has answered each question, take a brief moment to explain how this new job may be both similar to and different from what the candidate did previously. For example, if a previous role of theirs required them to complete five projects per week, and the new role would require them to complete a greater or fewer number of similar projects, mention that.

The purpose of doing this is to give the candidate a clear picture of the tasks and challenges they can expect in the role so they know what to anticipate if they eventually accept a job offer. There’s also a reason why now is an opportune time to make this connection. When a candidate is reflecting on a previous instance that required the competencies you need, they’re likely remembering how they felt at the time. Maybe they were energized. Maybe they hated the experience and vowed then and there to quit as soon as they could. Whatever the case, eliciting these feelings serves your interests and theirs—yes, even if it prompts their immediate departure from the candidate pool. The last thing you want is to hire someone who either can’t do the job or finds themselves unhappy doing it. You’re not just filling a role. You’re seeking the person who can be the most successful in it.

Don’t ask cute or clever questions. They’re a waste of everyone’s time. You’re almost certainly not going to learn anything useful by asking candidates what dessert they would be, how they’d plan a trip to the moon, or whether they prefer cats or dogs. Asking candidates to solve a made-up problem on the spot might yield interesting information, but unless the job involves a lot of unprompted problem-solving with no time to prepare, you’re better off asking candidates something else.

Keep questions job-related. Okay, we said earlier that the last thing you want to do is to hire the wrong person, but that’s not necessarily the worst thing that can happen. A bigger mistake than a bad hire is a hiring decision that nets you a costly discrimination claim. For example, if the job has a legitimate age requirement (such as operating machinery or serving alcohol), asking “How old are you?” will likely give rise to an age discrimination claim. Instead, just ask if they’re at least 18 years old (or whatever the required minimum age is).

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IRS Increases Mileage Reimbursement Rate Starting July 1, 2022

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has announced that its optional standard mileage rate will increase to 62.5 cents per mile driven for business purposes. The increase takes effect July 1, 2022.

Use of this rate is optional, though it is widely used by employers as a standard rate for calculating mileage reimbursement for employees who use their personal vehicles for business purposes. If your organization uses the IRS rate to calculate mileage reimbursement, be sure to update your systems to account for this change.

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How Paid Family Leave and Related Programs Can Help Your Business

Employment benefits that improve quality of life, increase flexibility, and enable people to attend to their personal needs rank high among both employees and job-seekers. And yet, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), while 79 percent of employees have access to paid sick leave, only 23 percent have access to paid family leave. 

What’s the difference between these benefits? Sick leave typically entitles people to take time off work when they or a family member are sick or need to see a doctor for preventative care. State-mandated sick leave benefits often top out around 40 hours per year, but paid sick leave is a common benefit that many companies offer even when it’s not required by law. Employees appreciate being able to rest and recover without a ding to their paycheck. Employers win because employees don’t come to work while sick and risk infecting coworkers and customers.

Paid family leave programs, whether funded by the state or offered by an employer out of the goodness of their heart, generally cover more lengthy illnesses and life events. For example, California’s state-sponsored program provides up to eight weeks of wage replacement benefits in a 12-month period. Benefits can be collected when taking time off for the birth of a child or adoption or foster care placement of a child; to care for an employee’s family member with a serious health condition; and to participate in a qualifying event as a result of a family member’s military deployment to a foreign country.

Unsurprisingly, not many companies offer their own paid family leave benefit. It is expensive, which is why states that provide paid family leave benefits typically fund it through payroll deductions. For employees, unpaid leave is better than no leave, but unpaid leave isn’t always a realistic option. In many cases, people who need time off to care for a family member can’t afford to take it—or they don’t take as much of it as they’d like. They feel they have no choice but to work. Paid leave, on the other hand, gives people a real option to take time off. It makes it possible for them to balance their obligations at work and at home.

Paid family leave can have an upside for your business too. When people feel needed at home, but can’t afford to take time off, they are distracted, extra stressed, fatigued, and prone to burnout. Their mind isn’t on the job—it’s on the loved one that needs them. When a business offers paid time off, it makes an investment in its people, a small short-term loss for a big long-term gain. Paid leave gets people back to work when they’re actually ready and able to work effectively, and it generates feelings of loyalty toward the company that was there for them when they needed it. That’s why employers keen on attracting and retaining skilled people often choose to offer various paid leave benefits when they’re not legally required to do so.

If you determine a paid family leave benefit is something your company would like to offer, here are some of our recommended practices:

  1. Clearly communicate what your paid family leave policy covers—how much money and time is offered and for what reasons. A lot of different benefits can be put under the “family leave” umbrella. To avoid confusion or misunderstanding, be clear about what you offer. Paid leaves to consider include baby bonding, bereavement leave, taking care of an ill or injured family member, and military family leave. Clarify what each leave can be used for. For example, if you offer paid time off for bereavement, your policy might specify that it can be used following the death of an immediate family member or the loss of a pregnancy.
  2. Be sure that you aren’t creating a leave program that’s discriminatory. To avoid a gender discrimination complaint, provide baby bonding leave for both parents in equal amounts. Baby bonding leave should also be available for an employee who is adopting or fostering a child.
  3. Along similar lines, if you also provide paid short-term disability benefits, treat paid leave for baby bonding completely separate. In other words, a pregnant employee would get disability benefits when they’re disabled during and after pregnancy. Then, once they’re no longer disabled (or when their disability benefit runs out), their paid family leave for baby bonding starts. Collapsing pregnancy disability and baby bonding leave together could give rise to complaints of disability discrimination or gender discrimination.
  4. Encourage use of your paid leave programs. Sometimes employees are nervous about taking time off—or too much of it—even when it’s offered to them. They may feel that they’re inconveniencing their coworkers or irritating their boss—as though paid leave is allowed but may be frowned upon. This is a cultural problem, and it has a cultural solution. First, regularly talk to your employees about the importance of taking time off—for whatever reason. Second, when people do take time off, talk about it as a good thing. Third, if the situation calls for it, offer additional support. Let the employee know you’re there for them if needed.  
  5. Ensure that employees aren’t penalized for using paid family leave. Often there is a disconnect between what HR and company executives want to offer and what managers actually tolerate. For example, if you were to see a trend that employees who use the paid family leave benefit are less likely to be promoted, you’d want to look at why that is and take steps to correct it. If employees discover that use of their benefits puts their career development at a disadvantage, this may discourage them from reaping the benefits of paid time away and expose the company to discrimination claims.

You can learn more about paid family leave and related compliance obligations on the platform. Select “Leaves and Accommodations” under the Topics tab at the top of the page or use the search bar if you have a specific question in mind.

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Four Ways to Make Terminations Less Stressful

In the 2009 movie Up in the Air, George Clooney and Anna Kendrick play corporate downsizers—HR consultants that companies across the country hire to terminate employees for them. The practice wasn’t exactly common at the time, and fortunately never took off, but it was believable.

Terminations are nerve-wracking. You’re doing something that’s going to cause another person incredible stress and financial hardship. It’s not easy to do, even when it’s deserved.

Nothing you can do will make terminations entirely stress-free. But terminations are often far more challenging than they need to be. No, we don’t recommend flying in Anna Kendrick and George Clooney to conduct your terminations, as tempting as that may be. But good preparation and the right attitude will make a big difference. Here are four general practices we do recommend:

Know Your Compliance Obligations Ahead of Time

Look up applicable laws regarding termination procedures and paperwork, accrued paid leave, severance pay, COBRA, and final paychecks before conducting a termination meeting. If you’re laying off a number of employees, you may have specific notice obligations under the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) or a similar state law. You don’t want to miss any steps or deadlines. If the employee works in a different state, refer to that state’s laws.

You should also understand how antidiscrimination laws work in practice and take steps to reduce the likelihood that the terminated employee will file a discrimination claim. While at-will employment allows either the employer or the employee to terminate the employment relationship at any time, with or without notice and with or without cause, it does not permit you to terminate employment based on the employee belonging to a protected class (e.g., race, sex, religion, national origin).

Along similar lines, screen the termination to make sure it’s not based on a protected activity. Myriad state and federal laws protect employees from being discharged for certain reasons. For example, Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act entitles employees to talk about their wages or complain about working conditions with each other. A handful of states prohibit employers from terminating employees for engaging in lawful activities outside of work. Reporting unsafe working conditions is protected. And don’t forget about the many leave laws that vary from state to state: from sick leave to military leave to school-involvement leave and more, you may be surprised by the types of absences that are protected.

There’s even some risk when the termination is for cause. A terminated employee could claim your reasoning is just for show, and they were actually terminated for an illegal reason. That risk grows exponentially when you don’t provide the employee with a sensible reason for the termination or when you’ve been inconsistent in applying your discipline policies.

Consequently, the safest way to terminate employees is to communicate performance issues to them, give them a chance to improve, and have documentation that justifies the legitimate business reasons behind the termination. This documentation would include policy violations, instances of poor performance, and any disciplinary or corrective action taken. The documentation should indicate that the company communicated the issues to the employee. The more you can do to show you had a legitimate business reason and gave them an opportunity to improve, the harder it will be for an employee to fill in the blank with their own illegal reason for termination. The termination will be less risky, and you’ll feel better about the decision because you treated the employee fairly.

Approach Terminations with a Positive Mindset

Painful as they are, terminations can be a good thing. Yes, even for the terminated employee. Let’s say you have an employee who’s continually struggled to meet your performance expectations. Guidance and training haven’t proven fruitful. No amount of coaching has or would enable them to do the job better. There’s no other job in your organization they could do. So now you have a choice. You can keep them on, tolerating subpar performance and accepting its consequences for your organization, or you can let them go. In this case, letting them go is probably the better option for both parties.

You’re not doing this struggling employee any favors by keeping them in a position where they can’t be successful. You’re also setting them up for failure in future roles. Months or years of experience listed on their resume may help them land a future job, but if it’s a job they actually can’t do, their future employer will have the same choice you’re facing. And the employee will be no better off.

This employee has their own hard choices to face. They may need to develop skills beyond what you can provide, rethink what kind of work they’re suited to do, or make better choices about their future. Whatever the case, if you allow them to coast along, they’ll never thrive. Termination is in the employee’s best interest in these types of situations. We wouldn’t recommend telling the employee this, but it’s something to keep in mind when making this difficult decision.

In the case of layoffs, where the employee is not at fault, figure out a few ways you can help them land on their feet. Provide a severance if that’s an option. Remind them that they can apply for unemployment. Help them update their resume. Inform them of any opportunities you know about and facilitate networking connections if you can. In short, make the layoff meeting a productive discussion about their future. That’s going to be a hard discussion, no doubt, and it’s possible the employee won’t want to hear it. You can honor that too.

Be prepared for strong emotions like sadness and anger to surface during the termination meeting so that you can respond with confidence. While there’s a fine line between allowing space for initial processing and unnecessarily prolonging the meeting, you can acknowledge and validate the employee’s feelings without changing the end result. Although escalations into violence are rare, review your company’s procedures ahead of time for dealing with such situations.

Don’t Let Terminations Be a Surprise

Have you ever gotten an email from a boss saying something cryptic like “We need to talk”? You may immediately begin to worry. Are you in trouble? Are you getting fired? Until you have that talk, you can’t breathe a sigh of relief.

Why would your mind go there? It might be because you’re not clear on what could get you into trouble at work and you don’t feel safe. Vague out-of-the-blue messages are seldom a good idea. They’re a terrible practice when people believe that they could realistically lose their job for reasons unknown to them. That belief puts people on edge, inclining them to assume the worst when their manager reaches out without any context. Surprise terminations encourage everyone to adopt that belief and incentivize a culture of fear.

Terminations should never be a complete surprise. Yes, at-will employment allows you to terminate employment for any reason or no reason at all (as long as it’s not an illegal reason), but please don’t fire someone for any reason or no reason at all.

Clear rules and consistent practices are your friends here. Inform employees what’s expected of them and what could result in their dismissal—the employee handbook is a good place to do this. Enforce your rules consistently, not willy-nilly. If you let employees get away with policy violations, but then suddenly switch to strict enforcement, you’ll only create confusion and fear. You don’t need to follow the same process for every kind of offense—some behaviors may warrant immediate termination, for example. But don’t bend the rules for some employees and not others.

A coaching culture can also be your friend, especially with employees who are struggling to perform to expectations. If managers regularly work with employees on improving their performance and enhancing their skills, they’re in a good position to spot signs early on that a struggling employee may be more successful and happier doing something else. In some cases, good coaching means guiding an employee out of the organization. A loss is a loss, but guiding employees toward more suitable work elsewhere is usually much smoother and less disruptive than an involuntary termination. Plus, they leave with goodwill towards you. In situations where termination is the right call, if managers have had conversations with employees ahead of time about the consequences for failing to improve, they’ll have softened the blow when it eventually comes.

Lastly, don’t hide bad financials from employees. If business is slow and a layoff is possible, employees need to know so they can make informed financial decisions and contingency plans. They’ll be extra angry if they feel they’ve been lied to or misled. In an age where companies go viral on the internet for poorly conducting layoffs, it’s in your interest to be transparent and honest.

Stay Organized

Develop a checklist ahead of time of things that need to be covered. This list might include specific equipment and keys that need to be returned, passwords and access cards that will need to be disabled, coverage of the employee’s workload until a replacement is hired, notification to coworkers, vendors, and customers, COBRA information, a current address for W-2s, and what you’re going to say during the termination meeting.

Checking off boxes may feel impersonal, but the day of a termination is at the very least challenging for all involved, and at the worst chaotic, especially if you’re disorganized. Keeping the process smooth and orderly is both kind and professional.

Article content provided by My HR Support Center