Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 51 seconds

Most employees who face a terminal illness may decide going to work is no longer a priority, but those who continue to show up could pose a challenge for managers.

Ensuring that a terminally ill employee has the flexibility and accommodations to continue working should they want to speaks highly of a company and how they value their workers. Then there is the hard reality of whether such compassion can backfire. One potential problem is whether accommodating a terminally ill employee could set a precedent for other future accommodation requests from other workers, Jeff Nowak writes for the Society for Human Resource Management.

Nowak writes about a human resources director who told him that he would make accommodations for a worker, Tom, with stage four cancer even as that employee was not able to handle his primary job responsibilities. That included making “work up for him to do until he feels he can’t work anymore,” Nowak recalls the director telling him.

But the HR director also expressed a concern about potentially being required to provide light duty or 'make-up' work for just any employee who can't perform their job. “‘If I do this for Tom, will the law require me to do the same for other employees in the future?’" The good news for employers is that courts have not held employers to a higher ongoing standard based on them taking an action they may not typically take in other instances where employees ask for accommodations, notes Nowak, a shareholder at the Littler Mendelson law firm, which focuses on employment and labor law.

In a 1995 Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Myers v. Hose, the justices rejected an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) claim from a bus driver who was fired due to not being able to perform. The bus driver claimed that he faced discrimination based on the fact that other employees were afforded accommodations.

That court ruled that “…the fact that certain accommodations may have been offered…to some employees as a matter of good faith does not mean they must be extended to Myers.”

“Such a regime would discourage employers from treating disabled employees in a spirit that exceeds the mandates of federal law,” the ruling noted. Nowak urges employers to demonstrate empathy and be open to a range of solutions in how they handle serious accommodation requests. This can include flexible working hours, amending performance goals that might be difficult to achieve with a particular illness, offering voice-activated computer equipment for those who have trouble typing and moving an employee to a ground floor if walking up stairs is an issue.

Laszlo Bock, Google’s former chief people officer, and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg are among top executives who have spoken out and taken action on dealing with death in the workplace, Harvard Business Review reports.

After leaving Google, Bock co-founded Silicon Valley-based Humu, which helps top leaders focus more attention on workplace compassion. When he was still at Google, Bock was a lead advocate for an HR policy that gave the partner of any U.S. Google employee who passed away 50% of that employee’s salary for 10 years, according to a 2012 Forbes article. The policy “speaks to your values, it speaks to your compassion,” Bock tells Harvard Business Review. “For employees with terminal illnesses, it was a great source of comfort.”

Such a standardized policy for all employees helps managers by removing the responsibility of having to decide on their own, and to avoid instances where managers may favor one worker over another, Bock notes. While there is no federal law mandating companies to provide time off for bereavement, 88% of companies in the U.S. provided paid bereavement leave last year, notes the Society for Human Resource Management.

The ability to remain flexible with standardized leave policies is also important, Julia Samuel tells Harvard Business Review. She is a psychotherapist specializing in bereavement and the author of Grief Works. Samuel notes that workers are often told ‘There’s a fixed number of days you’re allowed to have off,’ which is often three days around the death and then nothing. “This can backfire. The person feels that they’re being treated like a machine.”

Instead, Samuel urges managers to help their employees feel empowered in how best to handle their grief. She says employers can ask employees who have suffered a loss: “How would you like your colleagues to respond? Do you want to come in for an hour or two and see everybody, so your return is not too overwhelming? Would it be helpful to work half time for a couple of weeks?”

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