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

Mistakes can mean not only hurt feelings but also potential legal liability problems. The key is balance: Consider the sick employee’s needs and wishes while devising strategies to maintain the work routine.

Supervisors should handle such situations in four steps:

1. Avoid hands-off management

Now is not the time to withdraw and play a hands-off role. 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. Instead, 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 you set with each accommodation decision

Key decisions will need to be made about whether to reassign work and what kinds of accommodations and extra benefits to offer. Managers shouldn’t rush into those decisions on their own.

That’s because the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for employees’ qualifying disabilities. And every accommodation decision made for one employee could set a precedent that the organization will have to follow with other employees in the future.

For that reason, managers should 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 that worker he or she can work from home.

But if other managers haven’t offered that same work-from-home accommodation to their sick employees, your well-intentioned offer to work from home 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 specific 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. That’s why, once you learn of the employee’s illness, ask his or her permission to inform co-workers. Notify HR that you’re doing this.

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 those feelings, you can hold informal meetings to discuss with team members how the absence will affect 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 work. The talk can even 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, be willing to check on the employee regularly and know the law (and company policy) on medical confidentially.

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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