HR knows how to comply with all of FMLA’s requirements. But not all managers do — and they’re normally the first ones employees talk to when they need time off. That leaves many companies open to lawsuits caused by some common FMLA mistakes.
What’s the best strategy? Remind managers to come directly to HR any time they have a situation involving FMLA.
Otherwise, they may end up making these common mistakes that could get the company in big trouble:
- Giving leave to ineligible employees — It’s important for managers to be aware of who’s allowed to take FMLA and how much time they get — otherwise the employer may be stuck granting more leave than the law requires. In one recent case, an employee on FMLA called her boss to ask for more time off because she needed follow-up surgery. Even though the extra time put her over her 12-week guarantee, the manager said it was okay. But when the company fired her for missing too much work, she sued — and won. The court ruled it was the supervisor’s responsibility to let her know she was out of leave (Cite: Cutting v. Ferrous Processing and Trading Co.).
- Failing to adjust performance standards — Mangers can discipline employees for poor performance even if they take FMLA — unless the performance problems are somehow related to their medical leave. In a recent case, an employee was fired after she failed to meet a yearly sales quota. However, she sued, claiming the only reason she couldn’t close enough sales was that she was out on FMLA for three months. The court agreed — the company should have lowered the standard to account for the three months she missed (Cite: Wojan v. Alcon Laboratories, Inc.).
- Asking for too much medical info — The FMLA places strict limits on what information employers can gather when employees take leave. In one recent case, an employee submitted a certification form listing her symptoms and how long the condition would last. But that wasn’t enough for her manager. The company asked her for another form, this time with a specific diagnosis. She refused and was fired after she began her leave anyway. The matter ended up in court, and the company lost. The employee’s first form had everything the company needed — verification that she had a serious medical condition, “medical facts” to back that up and a probable duration. Employers aren’t entitled to a specific diagnosis when an employee takes leave (Cite: McDougal v. Altec Industries, Inc.).
- Delaying the response to a request — Managers are busy, but handing out FMLA paperwork is one task that can’t wait. Companies can be on the hook if it looks like they discourage employees from taking leave — even if an employee’s request is eventually approved. In a recent case, an employee told her boss she needed FMLA and asked for the necessary forms. She had to badger him several times and wait three months before she finally got them. Once she turned in the forms, HR approved the leave. But she sued, claiming the boss was trying to keep her from taking FMLA. The court agreed, and the company lost (Cite: Mueller v. J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.).
- Confusing FMLA and unexcused absences — Between HR tracking FMLA use and managers tracking employee absences, it’s easy for the facts to get lost in the shuffle — and managers may end up disciplining an employee for being absent too often when some of that time was protected under FMLA. Before any absence-related action is taken against an employee who’s used FMLA, companies should conduct an audit to determine if any absences the manager has tracked should’ve been excused.