Two-Way Empathy Thaws an Icy Response to Time Off

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 1, 2007

Joe Levandos's father called him in early January to say his mother's cancer would probably take her life within a couple of weeks. Levandos promptly asked his boss for some leave so he could be with her before she died. It was granted, and off he went. He stayed off for about a month and a half, during which time she passed away.

All of his leave was approved, and some of it was unpaid, Levandos said.

But when he returned to work in mid-February, the marketing manager at a nonprofit organization in New York thought his boss was angry. He expressed his concerns in a recent online discussion: "Her e-mails to this department seem meant to exclude me from any decision making process that I had once been involved in. We used to meet once a week and that hasn't happened since I returned. I feel this is her back-handed way of letting me know how all that time off upset her."

I suggested he talk to his boss, a piece of advice I often give. We seem to forget that sometimes all it takes is a little communication to clear things up.

Another reader piped up and said perhaps it was Levandos who wasn't being fair. He was given a lot of time off, that person wrote. "You should be thankful that your employer let you do that at all. Most wouldn't. Before you lay it on the line, give it a little time with your boss."

You know, reader No. 2 made a lot of sense. For one thing, the standard bereavement leave for the death of a close family member, even in companies with paid-leave policies, is a whopping three days, said Kathy Albarado, president of Helios HR, a human resources consulting firm in Reston. And maybe Levandos hadn't been back for long enough for his boss to see how committed he was to the work. Further, he is the only person who can do his job. So if his work was not getting done by him, it was just not getting done, he told me in a follow-up conversation.

There is still the fact that his boss okayed his leave. Is it fair for her to hold it against him? "Some bosses are very enlightened and it's sincere. And other people, there is a tone of resentment," Albarado said. "If you need more than a week's time, they question your work ethic, and that's unfortunate."

Although Levandos disliked those first few days back, he did say last week, almost a month after he had returned, that there seems to have been a hint of a thaw. He finished several projects that his boss was happy with. So perhaps reader No. 2 was right again.

And Levandos has thawed a little bit, too. When he returned, he expected a little more sympathy, so he didn't exactly seem grateful, considering how much time he got off.

He acknowledges now that he was certainly lucky, compared with many workers. "How many people could take that much time off?" he said.

Although three days is the standard, many companies do make exceptions. It's just a matter of what kind of exceptions will be made, Albarado said. "We'd like to be generous and give people time they need to recover, but at some point, you do have to draw line in sand," she said. "Employers can be empathetic, but also realistic."

But if they agree to that leave, they should accept their fate.

If an employee senses that management doesn't feel that way, it's probably time to approach the supervisor. Employees in Levandos's situation should explain that they realize their leave may have put a burden on the team, but remind the boss that the leave was approved. "Am I sensing there's a problem with that? If so, I'd like to get past it," Albarado suggests employees say in such a situation.

With spring here, Levandos is hoping the defrost continues.

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