7 Mistakes Companies Make Managing FMLA – And How to Avoid Them

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Have you done work related to managing FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act)? If so, you know that FMLA can be extremely challenging, especially if you are part of a small-to-mid-sized business and don’t have a dedicated leave expert. HR managers often call it frustrating, daunting and confusing. As an HR professional, managing FMLA is likely part of your job, and you want to do it with confidence.

Here’s some encouraging news: not only can you manage FMLA with certainty, but you can do it in a way that simultaneously contributes to the employee experience and your organization’s success. That’s because a well-managed FMLA leave program reduces compliance risks, increases operational efficiencies, and reduces costs from mismanagement of payroll while allowing your employees to focus on what matters most during their time of need: themselves and their families.

However, with so many other responsibilities, it’s easy for you and your HR team to make mistakes, and these mistakes can have consequences. So here are seven of the most common pitfalls along with tips for how to avoid them:

Mistake 1. Not having a clear or consistently applied FMLA leave policy

As Alice in Wonderland learned, if you don’t know where you want to go, any road can take you there. With this bit of wisdom in mind, it’s essential to be clear about how your company wants to manage the FMLA and related laws and regulations.

To this end:

  • Draft clear and compliant policies, guidelines and FAQs, and post these where your people managers and employees can easily find them.
  • Consider creating if/then flow charts with icons for FMLA leave request forms, as well as needed documentation lists, to ensure that all employees can easily fill out the required documentation.
  • If your workforce includes ESL employees (English as a second language), ensure documentation is provided in relevant languages or work with a translator to conduct orientations.
  • Create checklists for managers and have them in one place, along with the paperwork they need to complete. These should be easy to find, as well.
  • Set expectations upfront that your company’s procedures need to be followed before an FMLA leave can be approved.

Even with these proactive measures, you can hit snags. Leave cases can get complex, especially when there are overlapping policies. Therefore, managers and employees should know where to go if they need help or more information.

Mistake 2. Leaving employees and managers unclear about who is eligible for FMLA leave, and under what conditions.

Your employees should know when it is appropriate to request or approve FMLA leave, and your people managers should understand when they can approve it. Certain eligibility requirements and conditions apply. To stay on track:

  • Have a solid understanding of the eligibility requirements.
  • Know what health and life conditions can qualify a person for the FMLA.
  • Communicate these in your policies, guidelines, FAQs and other resources for employees and managers.

Mistake 3. Being vague about whether employees are entitled to any amount of FMLA leave pay.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “The FMLA is a federal law that provides job-protected, unpaid leave from work for certain family and serious medical reasons.”

Note that this leave is unpaid. However, some companies might require their employees to use their accrued paid time off (normally used for illnesses, vacations, or personal needs) as income during their time away from work under the FMLA. Or employees might choose to use this paid time off even if their employers don’t require it.

In addition, in a few states, employees might have access to Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML). This is something like an insurance program. Employees pay into it and then draw from it under certain circumstances.

To avoid confusion:

  • Determine what pay (if any) your employees can receive during their FLMA leave, and make sure your policy and FAQs are easy to find.
  • Equip your managers with training to understand that FMLA paid leave (if offered) is a company policy, not a federal one.
  • Look for external resources that describe the nuances of relevant federal and state laws and programs and provide links for your managers and employees. Here’s an example.

Mistake 4. Not preparing managers on how to professionally handle unexpected FMLA leave requests.

Employees requesting FMLA leave are often under duress and experiencing a range of emotions. In addition, people managers can experience anxiety when an employee’s leave request is unexpected and will impact the team’s performance and ability to deliver on its objectives. These concurrent needs and demands can create tension in their relationship.

For these reasons:

  • Provide scenario-based training for your people managers so they understand and gain experience in handling leave requests with empathy and professionalism.
  • Provide your people managers with scripts or talking points to guide their conversations and keep them on track. Scripts can also be useful tools in helping your managers ask all the right questions.
  • Remind managers that confidentiality is critical; they may not discuss the matter except with HR. To do so would be inappropriate and unprofessional.

Mistake 5. Not being specific about whether FMLA intermittent leave is allowed, and under what circumstances.

Do employees need to take their FMLA leave all at once, or can they take it in smaller periods over time? This is a vital question, and employees and people managers should know the answers.

Put briefly, FMLA intermittent leave is permitted when it is medically necessary. For example, when an employee or their family member needs a series of treatments. Also, employers can decide to allow an employee to take intermittent leave to bond with or care for a baby or foster child. These periods of intermittent leave must conclude within 12 months after the child’s birth or placement.

These guidelines might sound simple, but they become more complicated when employers consider the impact the intermittent leave might have on the company’s operations. In some cases, employers might decide to temporarily transfer an employee to a different role (with the same pay and benefits) that will allow for intermittent leave with less disruption.

As with all matters related to the FMLA:

  • Make your policy and guidelines clear and communicate them effectively to employees and managers.
  • Provide other resources such as this U.S. Department of Labor FAQ to help your people gain a deeper understanding.

Mistake 6. Not communicating to managers who owns a leave request and what their responsibilities are.

Managers have many responsibilities, and they can forget that they are on the front lines in handling employee leave requests. To avoid bumps in the road:

  • Train your people managers when and how to handle employees’ leave requests.
  • Provide managers with all the necessary information, steps, and forms. If they know what they are responsible for, and when, they will better understand and excel in their role.
  • Outline when they need to partner or handoff with HR.

Mistake 7. Terminating an employee because they are on FMLA leave.

This is a big mistake with legal consequences. Although employees can sometimes be terminated while they are on leave, the reason cannot be because they are on leave. Your people managers need to understand when termination might be illegal, and why they should never cross that line.

To avoid problems, make sure your managers (and leaders):

  • Understand the importance of partnering with HR in advance of taking any action.
  • Ensure they have access to sound HR and legal advice.
  • Have required documentation per legal counsel that is unrelated to the FMLA leave.

If possible, stay clear of making this mistake and exhaust all options before taking action.

There you have it: seven mistakes you don’t want to make when managing FMLA. Now that you know them, you can take steps to avoid them. Doing so will help your organization reduce compliance risks and increase operational efficiency.

Would you like to take your FMLA management to new heights? Sparrow can help. Sparrow is the only company to combine a state-of-the-art leave management platform with a leave management concierge for HR teams that are navigating the challenges of leave management. Request a demo today.