It is important to respond to your employee’s illness with care. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) exist to protect the rights and privacy of employees with disabling conditions. But, as an employer, you need to know about disabilities that will affect your employee’s ability to work. Be aware that in addition to federal laws, there are state laws on privacy rights that can vary greatly from state to state. Your Human Resources (HR) or legal department can guide you on the limitations – if any – of state and federal privacy mandates. If in doubt, be cautious! Even if you have a personal relationship with the employee, think twice before asking about specifics. Opening a line of strong, meaningful communication usually requires a comfortable environment. This can be difficult in a corporate setting. For a relaxed exchange:
Pick the place: Don’t try to catch a moment on the fly, in the office hallway or lunchroom. These situations don’t offer the privacy and focus you’ll need to approach the matter professionally. Find a private place where you can sit comfortably and talk without distraction or interruptions, if possible.
Get in your right mind: Take a few moments to prepare. Review what your legal counsel has advised and be prepared to do more listening than talking. You’ll learn more by listening and worry less about violating privacy.
Focus: Make sure you and your employee are fully focused on the conversation at hand. That means putting aside other activities and avoiding interruptions and phone calls. And if your employee doesn’t seem up to talking, ask if he or she would like to talk at another time.
Listen “actively.” Cancer patients often say the most important thing others can do is to truly listen. It’s also the best way for you to get information without worrying about what you can and cannot ask. A good listener encourages the speaker to talk without prompting for specifics. A technique called active listening is a concrete form of listening and responding that puts the focus on the speaker. Here are tips for active listening:
Focus on your employee. Pay close attention to what your employee is telling you.
Acknowledge his or her points. You don’t have to agree or disagree with what your employee is saying. Just encourage the person to continue by nodding, saying “yes,” indicating you’re listening.
Respond thoroughly and clearly. When your employee asks questions, answer specifically and thoroughly, and then let your employee continue at his or her own pace.
Reassure and reinforce. Don’t interpret. Just repeat what has been said as appropriate. You can also encourage your employee’s trust by letting him or her know you welcome open, honest communication.
Summarize. At the end of your talk, review some of the key points your employee raised. The idea is to make sure you both understand the situation, feel at ease, and have an open line of communication.
Below are some things you can say to show your concern:
“I'm sorry that you’re going through this.”
“If you need to talk, I’m available.”
“You’re a valuable member of this team. We’ll work together to figure out how to make this work.”
“Tell me what you think we can do to make your workload more manageable.”
“Let’s check in regularly to see how you’re doing.”
Here are some suggestions for discussing cancer with your employee:
Responding to the employee with cancer: Approach the topic in a way that makes it clear you care about the employee's wellbeing. You will want to avoid specific questions about your employee’s illness, but feel free to clarify his or her ability to work. For example: “I’m not sure I understand what that means. Can you explain to me what you need from the company to assist with your work?” “How might your treatment impact your work?”
What to say when you don’t know what to say: As a manager, you may not be used to feeling at a loss for words. Expressing your uncertainty increases your “human-ness” to employees. Mention that you need to consult with or include HR in discussions. For example: “I’m not sure what to say at this time. but I'll get more information and get back to you.” “I’ll work with you and the company to figure out some solutions.” “We care about your wellbeing and are committed to assisting you.” “I’m not sure how to respond to this situation. I would like to include HR to ensure we address your needs.”
Expressing your concern: Empathize, but avoid pity. For example: “This must be a difficult situation for you.” “I’m sure this is difficult to deal with.”
Addressing work issues: You want to handle matters carefully and not jump to conclusions, but it’s also part of your job to find out how your employee’s illness will affect his or her job performance. To lessen his or her fears – and your concerns – start by making the point that you’re a team and open to your employee’s suggestions. For example: “We’re going to handle this and do what we can to support you.” “Let’s take a look at what’s on your plate and how we should handle it.” “What are your suggestions for making things more manageable for you?” “What parts of your job do you feel capable of handling right now?” "It’s important that you are comfortable with any arrangements we make.”
Keeping communications open: Strong communication is an ongoing process. Your employee’s feelings, energy and attitude may change over time. It’s possible that the physical and emotional tolls of cancer treatment will begin to show in your employee’s performance. If you see changes, address them directly. For example: “How do you feel about the plans we made?” “Are our arrangements still working?” “I know this is a very difficult time. Let’s talk about how I can help you with your workload.”
Below are some recommendations for what not to say to an employee with cancer:
Don’t give advice. Just listen.
Don’t try to cheer him or her up. Although you may mean well, telling your employee to cheer up may minimize the employee’s feelings. Avoid sayings like, “things could be worse” and “time heals all.” It’s natural to want to comfort by saying things like, “you’ll be OK” or “things will work out” but you don’t know if that’s true.
Don’t brush off feelings. If your employee says he or she is scared, worried or anxious, don’t tell him or her not to be. Most of all, don’t tell your employee you understand how he or she feels. Unless you’ve been through cancer, you don’t.
Don’t judge. Chemotherapy and radiation impact appearance. Your employee may look tired and worn out, but don’t jump to conclusions and assume appearance reflects poor job performance. In fact, it is best not to comment on a new wig or physical change unless the employee asks for input.
Don’t share stories. Everyone knows someone who’s had cancer but, sharing other people’s stories shifts attention from the person speaking and can minimize what he or she has to say. This is the employee's opportunity to speak.
Don’t avoid silences. Pauses in conversation are natural. While silences can make us uncomfortable, they can be helpful. Let your employee lead the conversation. When in doubt, say nothing… and let your employee take the lead.
Your employee will remember the small things you do to help. And, those things don’t need to take much – if any – effort or money. Here are a few easy ways to show your support:
Find a place where your employee can make private treatment-related phone calls without worrying about others overhearing.
- Find a private room with a cot for your employee to rest.
Put Purell in common areas to minimize the spread of colds and bugs.
Stock the kitchen with sparkling water and crackers to help relieve nausea.
If possible, give your employee access to a refrigerator for storing medications.
Keep your employee “in the loop.” Let them know what’s happening at the office during any absences.
Respect his or her wishes about health privacy. Some employees will be eager to share their diagnosis; others may be close-lipped and just want to get on with a normal work life.
Only communicate your employee’s wishes to the rest of the staff if the employee asks for your help in doing so. If you have a worker who doesn’t want to be asked about his or her illness but the illness is publicly known, let your other employees know that the worker does not want to talk about his or her cancer.
Try to be available when your employee needs to talk to you. If it seems like he or she is not comfortable talking to you, ask for HR’s help. (Your company may already provide no-cost counseling through an Employee Assistance Program (EAP).) Help your employee stay visible and engaged.
Help your employee attend as many regularly scheduled meetings, trainings, and other functions as possible. When this isn’t possible, suggest he or she stay “visible” through by email and phone.