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Contacting employees on leave: What are the rules and best practices?

What are the rules for contacting employees on leave? When and how should you communicate with them?

On one hand, you don’t want to lose touch with your talent while they’re out of the office. On the other hand, too much contact or the wrong topic of discussion can feel intrusive and might be noncompliant.

Here are some guidelines for effective communication with employees on leave to sustain your relationship and maintain a good employee experience.

Contacting employees on leave isn’t required, but it’s a good idea

There are no legal requirements to keep in touch with workers while they’re out on leave. However, there are good business reasons to not let your employees think that you have forgotten about them.

Employees who are on leave, particularly for long periods, may begin to feel disconnected from the work environment. That can lead to them feeling unneeded or unwanted, which damages the employee-employer relationship.

In extreme cases, an employee who hears nothing from work while they’re on leave may assume that they’ve been replaced or are no longer needed. That can damage the relationship and may lead the employee to find another job or become hostile if their employer does contact them.

To maintain a good relationship with workers on leave, a manager or HR person can keep in touch on a regular basis, but not so often that it seems intrusive.

How should you communicate with employees while they’re on leave?

At a minimum, employers can request updated documentation from their employees on leave, if those requests stick to a reasonable schedule, like monthly emails. They can also reach out about changes that may impact the employee, such as reminders about open enrollment periods for health insurance.

Otherwise, it’s best to keep contact focused on topics other than work. Some ways to do this include:

1. Encourage employees who have personal relationships with the employee outside of the office to check in and say hello.

This kind of casual contact lets the employee on leave know they haven’t been forgotten at work.

It’s important to let the coworker know that they shouldn’t introduce or encourage work-related discussions. They can pass along a message of “hello” from others in the workplace but shouldn’t discuss work events or other work-related topics with the employee on leave.

2. Encourage managers of employees on leave to reach out occasionally.

They can send an occasional card or reach out to say “Hi, how are you?” to keep the employee feeling connected.

3. Include on-leave employees in emails unrelated to work.

This can be a great way to continue to keep them involved. For example, if the employer has a summer picnic or other team-bonding activity that is fully voluntary, make sure the employee on leave gets an invitation, with a note that they’re welcome but not required to attend.

Other helpful guidelines

Limit your phone calls to on-leave employees to once a month for five minutes or less and focus on light topics like the employee’s new car, their pet or how their children are doing.

It’s also a good idea to reach out as the on-leave employee’s return date draws near. You might send a letter between two weeks and a month before an employee is due to return, confirming their anticipated return date and letting them know you’re excited to have them back.

This kind of pre-reentry letter is also a good place to update employees about any big changes that have happened during their leave.

For example, if there are new teams or a new supervisor on one shift, you can mention that in the letter so it’s not a surprise on their first day back.

What not to talk about with employees who are on leave

Any conversation with an employee on leave – including written conversations – should contain no reference to work.

If you end up talking work, at best you may owe the employee wages for time considered work. At worst, your work-related communication may be viewed as interfering with a leave.

Remind managers not to get into work talk when they reach out to on-leave workers. If the employee brings up work, there’s no harm in saying something like, “We miss you here, but we’re hanging in there.” Then you can move on to another topic.

If the employee is on a health-related leave, steer clear of personal health discussions. The general rule for employers is to ask only what’s absolutely necessary about an employee’s health in order to accommodate their requests.

What about employees who don’t want to be contacted while they’re on leave?

Occasionally, an employee may specifically ask not to be contacted while they’re out on leave. In those situations, your organization should respect their wishes and not reach out with casual check-ins or non-work-related information like an invitation to the company picnic.

Of course, the company should still send information required by law, such as:

However, if these communications aren’t urgent, it’s best to hold off until about a month before the employee returns to work. Then you can send a reminder email or letter to let them know if any of their documents or credentials have expired or are about to expire and request that they bring updated information when they return.

How should employers handle requests for employees on leave?

While an employee is away on leave, their work still needs to be done. And there may be requests coming in from vendors, customers or co-workers who don’t realize (or forgot) that the employee is on leave.

The best way to handle the employee’s workload and requests from others depends on whether the leave is planned or sudden.

If the leave is planned

When you receive advance notice of a planned leave, such as when an employee goes out on maternity leave or takes a long-awaited corporate sabbatical, you can implement a plan for how the employee’s work will be completed. The plan may include:

  • Hiring a temporary employee
  • Temporarily reassigning another co-worker to that work
  • Distributing the employee’s tasks among co-workers

In each of these cases, the person or people filling in should be able to handle the on-leave employee’s work-related communication and other tasks.

If the leave is unplanned

Even the most conscientious employee can experience a sudden need for leave that they didn’t anticipate. For this reason, it’s a good idea to develop a process to cope with unplanned leaves before they happen.

If you’re dealing with an employee’s unplanned leave, you may have to “reinvent the wheel” to some extent. Keep these things in mind as you’re developing your plan:

  • It’s possible to contact an employee on leave about work, but it should be avoided if possible.
  • Any such conversations should be restricted to asking about dedicated processes.
  • That means only contacting employees about processes that require a specific resource or means to achieve a goal that can’t be recreated easily, quickly or within reason regarding time and cost.

For example, perhaps your head software engineer is on a sudden, unplanned leave and she has all the information about your company’s soon-to-be-launched app on her password-protected work computer.

If there’s no one else who has that information, and if there’s no other way to access her computer, you may be able to contact her for the password and guidance about handing the project off to another engineer.

Then you’ll need to assign someone to take over the on-leave employee’s workload and work communication, just as for a planned leave.

What if you must talk with an on-leave employee about work?

In those rare situations where contacting employees on leave about work is a must, it’s important to follow these steps.

  1. Request a meeting with the employee and let them select the date and time for the meeting.
  2. Tell them how long it will be and notify them that they will be paid for the time. If they are hourly, they must be paid for the duration of the meeting, plus any prep work they’re required to do for it. If they’re exempt, they must be paid for the day in which they did any work.
  3. Be on time, be prepared for the meeting and don’t make it longer than it needs to be.

What to include about employee leaves in your employee handbook and HR manual

Your organization’s employee handbook should describe your leave of absence policy, including  information about what an employee can expect before, during and after a leave. Ideally, this will spell out:

  • What the leave request process looks like
  • How much leave employees may take, and whether it’s paid or unpaid
  • The expectation that the employee will do no work while on leave

If your company has a policy of shutting down all company-provided access, such as cell phones, computer access and card keys, that should be in the employee handbook as well. That way it won’t come as a surprise to employees who take leave.

Want to learn more about creating a better employee experience? Download our complimentary e-book: 7 most frequent HR mistakes and how to avoid them.