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It's sad enough when an employee becomes seriously ill. What makes it tougher is that work doesn't stop. Deadlines remain, customers need service and paperwork piles up.

That means you must deal with two major management challenges at once: understanding and appreciating the emotions of the employee and other co-workers, while making sure that the necessary work gets done. Responding to these challenges requires tact, sensitivity and flexibility.

Mistakes can mean not only hurt feelings, but potentially legal liability problems, too. The key is balance: You must consider the sick employee's needs and wishes while devising strategies to maintain the work routine.

First priority: Provide support

When employees tell you that they're seriously ill, your immediate response should be to provide support. Express your overriding concern about the person's well-being.

Resist the urge to dispense advice. Don't play doctor or offer prescriptive solutions, such as, "It's probably best not to exert yourself right now." Such advice could come back to haunt the organization if the employee ever voices a legal claim, such as an ADA lawsuit.

Another no-no: Don't try to instinctively make things better by saying, "I'm sure this won't slow you down." Rallying employees to fight a disease may backfire if all they want is some accommodation so they can continue to meet their duties. The ADA often requires such accommodations.

4 tips for managers

Aside from trying to tell seriously ill employees how to treat their condition, here are some other tips for managers when handling these tough situations:

1. Avoid laissez-faire management. Now is not the time to withdraw from the employee and play a hands-off role. If you're uncomfortable with the news of a sick employee, you may decide it's easier to avoid talking about it.

Instead, turn up your listening skills when talking with the ill employee. Serve as a sensitive, patient sounding board. An employee who wants to continue working may resent your avoidance. Say, "I want to offer whatever help I can for you. Let me know what I can do, and I promise to do my best." Then, make yourself accessible.

2. Consider the precedent-setting nature of accommodation decisions. Key decisions will need to be made about whether to reassign work and what kind of accommodations and extra benefits to offer.

Don't rush into those decisions on your own. They could become a precedent that the organization will have to follow with other employees in the future.

For that reason, it's important to talk with HR about the potential legal implications before making any accommodation decisions regarding seriously ill employees.

Example: If a star performer is about to undergo cancer treatment and periodically must miss long stretches of work, you may instinctively tell her she can work from home. But if other managers in the organization haven't offered that same work-from-home accommodation to other employees, your action could expose the organization to an ADA lawsuit from an employee who demands equal treatment.

3. Protect the employee's confidentiality. In most cases, employees don't need to provide exact details of their illness to management. For extended leaves, they'll likely need to provide HR with a doctor's certification.

But, in many cases, employees may want their co-workers to know what's happening. Once you learn of the employee's illness, ask his or her permission to inform co-workers.

Some co-workers will be concerned about the employee's plight, but they may also harbor concerns about how they'll manage the increased workload. To deal with the feelings, hold informal meetings to discuss with team members how it's affecting them and how the workload and schedule needs to be altered.

4. Choose a contact person. When employees miss a lot of work because of illness or injury, you can expect a lot of well-intentioned talk around the water cooler.

The problem: Well-wishers can gossip to the point where they fall behind in their work. Even worse, the talk can lead to false rumors and confidentiality breaches.

To prevent this, select a central contact person who agrees to relay updates on how the employee is progressing. Ideally, this person should be on friendly terms with the employee and be willing to check on the employee regularly.

Bottom line: By combining sincere support and understanding the need to maintain work productivity, managers can successfully help an employee and other staff cope with a serious illness.

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