Alert managers: No ‘magic words’ needed to request FMLA

Issue: Some supervisors think about FMLA only if an employee explicitly says "I need FMLA leave."

Risk: In reality, employees don't need to use the term "FMLA." Failing to recognize qualifying requests could spark an FMLA dispute.

Action: Urge supervisors to listen closely for leave requests that would fall under FMLA, then alert you.

When employees ask for leave, especially for unforeseen circumstances, they don't need to assert their FMLA rights by stating, "I need FMLA leave." In fact, they don't even need to mention FMLA. While employees must provide a general explanation of their reason for leave, it's your responsibility to identify leave requests that qualify as job-protected FMLA leave.

If the employee gives enough information to draw a preliminary conclusion that the leave may qualify for FMLA, consider yourself on notice. That's why it's important to teach supervisors how to listen for leave requests that would fall under the FMLA umbrella. As the following court ruling shows, even general leave requests, such as "I have a family emergency," could trigger FMLA protections.


Recent case: When an employee told his boss that he needed leave to deal with a "family emergency," the employer refused to grant him the time off. He sued under FMLA, and the court sided with him, saying his designation of "family emergency" was enough to put the company on notice of his need for FMLA leave.

FMLA regulations require employees to give you only a "short and plain statement" of their need for leave. If you determine later that the employee (or family member) didn't have a serious health condition that would qualify for leave, you can withdraw your FMLA leave approval at that time. (Christenson v. The Boeing Co, No. 150 LC 34924, D.Ore., 2005)

To discover which type of health problems qualify for FMLA leave, download our free report, FMLA: How to Define a Serious Health Condition, at

Top 5 FMLA challenges for HR

1. Tracking intermittent leave.
2. Vague certification notes from doctor.
3. Productivity loss due to absences.
4. Unsure about legitimacy of leave request.
5. Morale problems with staff asked to cover.
Source: Society for Human Resource Management's FMLA survey, January 2005