This article originally appeared on our sister site, TechRepublic.
Keeping just the right amount of contact with team members who are on extended leave is a tough balancing act, to say the least.
On one hand, you want to keep an employee up to speed on important workplace developments; on the other, you want to respect whatever need caused the employee to go on leave in the first place. After all, a new parent or someone caring for an ill family member probably has more important things on his or her mind than an e-mail client upgrade.
I’ve always been at something of a loss when managing my way through issues such as these, so I contacted some TechRepublic members and my constant font of HR knowledge, CNET vice president Barbara Ford. What I learned, not surprisingly, is that there’s no hard-and-fast way individual managers should approach keeping employees informed of work-related news. In most cases, you’ll just want to keep disseminating information as you normally do, with a few tweaks but no substantial special considerations. Also, you need to be careful that the actions you take toward your team don’t conflict with the company’s overall policies on managing contact with on-leave employees.
Intranets are your friend
Ford and a few of the members I contacted said that with the help of an intracompany Web site, managers probably don’t need to exert much effort to keep on-leave employees in touch. Many companies, including TechRepublic and Builder.com’s parent, CNET Networks, maintain exhaustive sites that list everything from benefits policies to new job postings (more on this later). If your employees have Internet access at home (and who doesn’t?), then a simple reminder about the availability of this information is probably enough, Ford said. Be careful: If access to your intranet site is gated by a firewall, and you don’t offer VPN or other access to remote users, your on-leave employees may not be able to get all the info they need.
What about new job postings?
For me, new job postings are the trickiest aspect of managing contact with employees who are on leave. A close colleague of mine once was not informed of a job opening while she was on maternity leave, and the incident left a permanent shadow on her relationship with upper management. Just because employees are dealing with family or personal issues at a particular moment doesn’t mean they are completely unconcerned with advancing their careers.
The catch with informing on-leave employees of new job openings, Ford noted, is that you have to inform all your employees of the opening. Otherwise, you open yourself to claims of preferential hiring practices or, at the very least, hard feelings.
So just because you think someone might be great for a job, don’t make any extra efforts to inform that person that it’s open or coming open soon. If you can, rely on your company’s Web site. If a position is opening on your team, send any special e-mail or other communication to every team member, including the on-leave employee.
A few special concessions
This is not to say that you can’t do a few extra things to keep on-leave employees engaged in the team’s life. I think common sense should be the defining standard here. If you circulate e-mail minutes of your biweekly team meetings, ask the employee going on leave if he or she wants to be copied on those mails at a home address. If you send out paper correspondence to the team, make sure a copy goes to the home of any on-leave employees.
Remember, the goal here is to give the employees access to the same information as their teammates, without interfering or imposing on their need to be away from the office for a while. So I’d advise against phone calls, except in cases of extreme time sensitivity.
Don’t set conflicting expectations
From an HR standpoint, a big risk of maintaining contact with an on-leave employee is that, in your zeal to keep a certain team member in the loop, you set some expectation of conduct that you later fail to meet with another employee. Or, even more insidious, your contact with your own team sets an expectation that’s not met by the company on other teams. Who’s to say that a marketing department copywriter who’s on leave wouldn’t be a good candidate for that technical documentation job that’s coming open next month? If your efforts to keep your own team member informed go beyond measures typically taken by the company, an employee who feels slighted may have a legitimate claim.
My best advice is to involve HR in a quick session with anyone who is going on an extended leave. In addition to making sure that all the proper forms have been completed, you can ask your team member about any desire to stay in touch with developments at work. With HR as your guide and witness, you can come to an understanding that will typically amount to little more than adding a home e-mail address to a distribution list or two.
It’s a simple way to make sure that when your employees are out of sight, they are not entirely out of mind.
Ken Hardin is a freelance writer and business analyst with more than two decades in technology media and product development. Before founding his own consultancy, Clarity Answers LLC, Ken was a member of the start-up team and an executive with TechRepublic.com and ITBusinessEdge.com.