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What should we do about an unproductive employee—who is terminally ill?

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in Human Resources,The HR Specialist Forum

What can we do? One of our employees is not at all productive, but his manager refuses to terminate him. That's because the employee has a terminal illness. The manager speaks to the employee about his poor performance and not following instructions, but that is far as it goes. At what point should HR intervene and press for termination?—Marilyn

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Peter Klaven May 25, 2011 at 2:11 pm

The first definition defines a disability as a condition that prevents you from performing the major duties of your occupation. One top-rated long term disability provider summarizes their definition of disability as: “Pays benefits if you are unable to perform the material and substantial duties of your own occupation due to sickness or injury…even if you are able to do some other kind of work.


Bernadette April 19, 2010 at 5:28 pm

Keep in mind the impact on the rest of the employees in the office. Watching a co-worker deteriorate, physically and emotionally, can have a devastating effect on those around. HR has an obligation to consider the well being of all employees.


JWG September 24, 2009 at 10:38 am

I’ve read many of the responses, and I most relate to Jennifer’s. Why? Her response seems to have a balance between compassion for the employee and responsibilities to the company, management, and the other employees. Also, the way in which the company is handling this employee’s situation does set precedence / practice and I often ask my managers to ask themselves would they show such compassion with a not-so-favored employee.

HR’s role, from my perspective, is to bring the appropriate reality and balance to management. Compassion is not simply “allowing” an employee to under perform due to an illness, especially due to the impact in doing so has on the environment; yet, compassion includes HR coaching management through the delicate process of addressing something that is definitely less than ideal.

This seems to be a great opportunity for HR to demonstrate its true value-add to the company. Everyone is watching, including employees.


Jen September 23, 2009 at 2:38 pm

While you need to be mindful of her medical disability, you also need to be mindful of the disability on your business. When productivity is impaired, the conversation needs to be had first and foremost around performance. Likely, the employee will indicate that their illness is to blame which will be the perfect segway into a conversation around FLMA rights and/or possible modifications to duties. Let the medical experts decide if she is fit for duty and then you can decide if you can accomodate any restrictions brought forward. The compassion to an employee comes in making a concerted effort to accomodate but ultimately this is not always feasible or in the best interest of the business.


Wendy September 23, 2009 at 2:04 pm

If her need is for the insurance and not the paycheck or the occupation of her time, then is there a way to make that happen for her? keep her in the program at that rate? even if her duties or hours are changed?

Encouraging counseling is a great idea -also encourage her to check with her physician to see if her meds may be causing problems which could be remedied with a change of treatment (or if indeed it is the cause but cannot be changed) .

If she has been a valued member of the team for a while, it certainly would send a better message to other staff that you work with people in tough situations rather than seeing what looks like the company tossing away an older ill person.

Best wishes with this – I know it cannot be easy.


Kelly September 23, 2009 at 1:51 pm

Several aspects need to be explored here (legal, marketing, corporate branding, recruitment, HR, finance, retention, employee morale, etc.) before making a quick decision to terminate. I have seen other companies in this situation handle it successfully for all parties, from an ethical and business perspective, that did not result in termination of a terminally ill employee.


Jennifer September 23, 2009 at 1:02 pm

Is her illness causing forgetfulness or these mistakes? I agree with Susan. It’s a good idea to explore FMLA rights or see if she can do the essential functions of the role with ADA accommodation. Would a reduced work schedule or change in responsibilities allow her to keep being productive at some (but maybe not all) job functions? This give you an opportunity to go through the interactive process and document what you will agree to hold her accountable for. Then you can move into the disciplinary process if she can’t keep up with what the doctor suggested and/or she’s agreed to. Also, if her doctor suggests she would benefit from time away, it’s time to look at your short/long term disability benefits.


Betsy September 23, 2009 at 10:19 am

Have you considered changing her responsibilities? We had a similar situation. She wanted to work even though the work she produced was no longer high quality. We changed what she did to sorting mail, stuffing envelopes & greeting meeting attendees. We paid her for the hours she worked. The actual tasks didn’t matter to her–in fact, she seemed relieved to not have the pressure of her accounting position. The company demonstrated to the entire staff that our employees are our most important asset and that we will make accommodations even though they cost us in reduced productivity and wages. Don’t take lightly how this situation affects your entire staff–and customers if they interact with your employees. (read: this could be me, so how my company treats another employee is an indication of what I could expect.) The employee emotionally needed to be at work on a reduced schedule. My guess is that it took her mind off her health issues and gave her a place to go where people cared about her. When it became too difficult for her to get ready for work, she asked to resign. The company took the high road. Integrity and compassion matter.


Marilyn September 22, 2009 at 3:42 pm

The problem is she is over 65 and the reason she stays working is because she wants the insurance (she only has to pay 10.00 a pay period), she always remarks about how medicare doesn’t pay for anything. This is a small company where she does A/P and she makes errors that could cost the company money. So far we have been lucky that companies who have received overpayments have been willing to return the money.


patty September 22, 2009 at 1:43 pm

I agree with Janet. However, also consider whether it’s the actual illness that is causing the employee to be unproductive, or if there are other issues involved such as depression. (I’d be depressed if I had a terminal illness.) The employee may need to be referred to your EAP program to get some counseling to deal with his depression and even grief for what he’s going to lose soon. Or maybe he’s having to take medications that are debilitating but necessary. Counseling could improve his outlook, which in turn would have a positive impact on his health. In the meantime, you and your coworkers could offer to help him with his duties. Above all, follow the Golden Rule–treat others as you would like them to treat you. I find that’s always good advice.


Janet September 22, 2009 at 1:20 pm

You need to decide if your corporate philosophy leans more toward ‘productivity and profits above all’ or ‘our people are our most valuable asset’. If it is the latter, show compassion. This employee’s work may be the most important thing in their life at this time (my work was all that kept me going after my sister died suddenly), and removing that ability to make a contribution – however small – may profoundly affect their (already limited) well-being. When I worked for a small private firm that had been started by the owner’s father, I was moved by the fact that the owner kept a desk in his office for his dad, who came in once or twice a week and did a little ‘work’ at his desk. He was in his eighties, and couldn’t do a lot, but it meant so much to him to be able to contribute and be a part of the company. And you need to remember, also, that, in effect, we are ALL ‘terminally ill’ — it’s just a matter of how long we’ll last. How would you want to be treated in the last part of your life? Would you want to continue to contribute and be part of the team as long as you can? Or would you prefer to be sent home to die? If your company can afford to, show compassion and support this team member as long as possible. It may not pay off in short-term productivity, but it will pay off in long-term karma.


susan September 22, 2009 at 11:01 am

I would think you should be talking to the employee about his/her FMLA rights or about your short term disability plan.


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