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When one of your employees becomes seriously ill, you face two major challenges at once: understanding the emotions of the employee and other co-workers, while making sure that the necessary work still gets done.

Extended employee illnesses are especially hard on small businesses, where every employee is vital. That’s why 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: Consider the sick employee’s needs while devising strategies to maintain the work routine.

Give support, not advice. When employees tell you that they’re seriously ill, your immediate response should be to express your overriding concern about the person’s well-being.

Resist the urge to dispense advice or offer prescriptive medical solutions, such as, “It’s probably best not to exert yourself right now.” Such advice could come back to haunt your company if the employee ever voices a legal claim, such as an Americans with Disabilities Act (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 the employee wants is a simple accommodation so he or she can continue to work. The ADA often requires such accommodations.

Here are three other tips to help you handle 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 an employee’s sickness, 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.

2. Consider the precedent-setting nature of accommodation decisions. You may need to make important decisions about whether to reassign the employee’s job duties and offer him or her certain accommodations or extra benefits.

Don’t rush into those decisions. They could become a precedent that you’ll have to follow with other employees in the future. Or your decision may run counter to the way you’ve handled similar situations in the past.

For that reason, consider talking with an employment-law attorney before making such accommodation decisions.

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 you haven’t offered such work-from-home accommodations to other employees, your action could expose you to an ADA lawsuit from an employee who demands equal treatment.

3. 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.

Well-wishers can gossip to the point where they fall behind in their work.

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

Bottom line: By offering sincere support and understanding the need to maintain work productivity, you can successfully help employees and their coworkers cope with a serious illness.

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