How to Manage the Long-Term Absence of Key Employees

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Jan 14, 2019

There are times in many people’s working lives when, for one reason or another, they can’t work for a while. Sometimes the absence is anticipated — parental leave for instance, or a long-serving employee goes on sabbatical to do something they have always wanted to do. But sometimes the unexpected occurs — a baby arrives a couple of months before it was due; a winter break ends with a skiing accident; someone is diagnosed with a serious illness. These are traumatic events which are likely also to involve absence from work for an extended period.

How should managers handle this?

They will want to deal sympathetically with the affected person, but they also have to consider the impact on the business and the rest of the team. What is best practice for resource planning and maintaining productivity during the long-term absenteeism of key people? How can managers plan ahead to ensure their teams maintain performance levels when a star employee takes sick leave, parental leave or other long-term breaks?

Having been in business for 30 years, I have dealt with this kind of situation as a manager, and I have also gone on long-term leave myself. Two years ago I took several weeks off to sail across the Atlantic. Having seen this from both sides, I think there are some strategies which can help you manage this situation.

Communicate with the affected person and with their team

For people on extended leave – and particularly those going through upheaval – work often represents stability and a return to normal. They are likely to be looking forward to getting back to the workplace, their friends and their role. Making time to discuss this with them in an encouraging way is reassuring and helps to ensure they will feel confident and positive about returning. Ensure this works for them – how would the absent person like to keep up to speed with what is going on in the workplace?

And it is also important to communicate with the team around the affected individual. Do they know the situation? What is the impact on them? Do they have ideas about how best to cover for the missing person?

Cover the work

Once you have parceled out aspects of the person’s job, it may become obvious that balls are still being dropped. Perhaps there were things this person was doing which were not obvious from the job description, like sponsoring a change process which is not yet embedded. When they disappear, the momentum starts to slip. If nothing is done to address this, the business may suffer, revenue may fall. If this starts to happen it can create frustration and stress for everyone in the business.

Establish what areas of the person’s job are not being done and seek cover. Look around the organization – don’t be limited by geography. Someone in another area may be able to pick up this part of the role on a temporary basis. Other options may be contractors, or agencies. How will the handover work? Can the absent person take a role in this?

Plan for the return

Nobody, of course, is indispensable. People adapt, teams reconfigure and the work usually gets done somehow. Keeping a space open for someone can sometimes be as difficult as filling it initially. Bringing a valued colleague and team member back on board after a long absence should be carefully planned in advance.

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