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Ethical Q&A: Compassionate leave


Ethical Q&AIn this month’s article on how to be an ethical employer, Tor Goldfield tackles the issue of compassionate leave and the main factors to consider when implementing a policy for it.


An employee recently asked for a week’s compassionate leave to spend time with a sick relative who isn’t a dependent, which was granted. I am keen to get a policy in place for dealing with this in the future, particularly if the next time it necessitates more time off work. What are the main things I should consider?


How you behave as a boss in times of personal employee stress can be one of the most important factors in maintaining a happy and loyal workforce. The very first step is taking time to understand exactly what the problem is and how much leave they may need as a result.

It’s worth being aware of the statutory right to time off for dependents, which applies to unpaid leave for family emergencies concerning marital partners, children or anyone else who reasonably relies on the employee for assistance. This doesn’t cover long-term care for sick relatives which must be considered separately.

The guidelines around this aren’t particularly clear cut, so employees can take what’s deemed to be ‘reasonable time off’ to deal with such issues. This is where maintaining a positive working relationship and open lines of communication will really help, ensuring that people don’t take liberties with these rights.

Unexpected leave for other personal emergencies, such as a close friend going into hospital, are not covered by this legislation although, as we all know, such experiences can be extremely disruptive to productivity levels. This is where it’s worth considering how flexible you are prepared to be with your description of compassionate leave.

An ex-boss once gave a colleague time off to be with her horse, which became seriously ill and subsequently had to be put down, because she was aware of the anguish caused by the situation. This showed extreme sensitivity and did a lot to create a positive feeling amongst the workforce.

“If the employee’s job doesn’t necessarily require them being in the office then it may be worth suggesting that they work from home occasionally.”

If the problem is likely to be short term then it’s certainly worth being prepared to show willing where possible. Should the situation become chronic then a change of strategy may be needed. Offer the employee the opportunity to talk about the situation and openly discuss what kind of support is appropriate.

Firstly you should decide whether compassionate leave will be paid or unpaid and make this clear to the employee. You may settle on a combination of both. Agree an initial number of days, either in one block or over time, so the employee knows exactly where they stand and appreciates that additional days must be discussed and agreed separately. Think about services you could recommend which might offer financial and practical support. There are a number of excellent charities for carers that can provide all manner of help and assistance.

If the employee’s job doesn’t necessarily require them being in the office then it may be worth suggesting that they work from home occasionally. That way you still benefit from their input while allowing them to respond to the needs of the situation.

Throughout this process it’s vital to keep talking. Arrange regular meetings to check how they are coping, as they will no doubt need and welcome your support during this time. You may wish to offer counselling or life coaching as a benefit during this period. This is great for encouraging loyalty and staff retention so that when the need for compassionate leave ends you have an appreciative and engaged employee.

It is also important to bear in mind how unexpected absences may impact on other team members. You shouldn’t just assume that someone will be available to pick up the slack. Take the time to assess the workload of relevant colleagues and decide how best to reallocate tasks. You may wish to offer some kind of incentive – it doesn’t have to be financial – to those who step into the breach. Sometimes even just bringing in some tasty goodies can show that you are thinking about the team and are aware of the additional pressure they may be under.

Remain vigilant to signs of rising stress and take swift action if you think it’s becoming a problem – the last thing you want is someone else taking time off for stress.

Think about how you would like to be treated if this was happening to you –if you treat people with the respect they deserve they will do the same to you and your business.

Previous articles:
Ethical Q&A: Persistent lateness
Ethical Q&A: Effective appraisals

Tor Goldfield is director at ethical media relations company Blue Rocket

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