Shari's Solutions

Advice on all things HR from Shari Lau, SHRM-SCP, SHRM's knowledge manager. E-mail your questions to

By Shari Lau Sep 1, 2015


How much time off should be given to an employee who has lost a spouse or child?

Questions surrounding the best way to handle a return to work after a death became part of the national conversation when Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg lost her husband, Dave Goldberg, a Silicon Valley executive, earlier this year. While Sandberg chose to return to work within a couple of weeks, others may find they need more or less time.

Indeed, there’s no one right answer, since every person grieves differently. The best approach is to lead with compassion; an empathetic response during an employee’s time of need can generate tremendous loyalty and appreciation.

Eighty-six percent of employers offer paid bereavement leave following the death of a spouse or child, according to the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM’s) 2015 Employee Benefits research report.

That leave usually ranges from three to five days, according to a 2009 SHRM survey, and it is almost always in addition to other paid time off. The question most HR professionals will face, however, is whether an employee’s specific allotment is enough, and, if not, what to do about it.

There are no federal laws that give private employees the “right” to bereavement leave, although federal and some state employees are entitled to such time. Oregon is the only state that mandates bereavement leave for private employees, allowing up to two weeks of unpaid leave under the Oregon Family Leave Act.

Leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act is available during a family member’s illness, but not after death. However, if the surviving employee develops depression or another medical condition, any remaining leave could be used for the employee to care of him or herself.

When a worker asks for more time off than he or she is eligible for, you must balance your compassion for the employee with the needs of the company.

In HR, we are told to “be consistent” with our policies. But consistency doesn’t preclude flexibility. As long as your approach is the same, you can build in some variability in the amount of time off you allow. Try the following:

  • Talk with the employee to determine how much time off is needed and compare this with the needs of the department. Citing department- or position-specific needs can support an employer’s determination in a nondiscriminatory fashion.
  • If extended leave is needed and can be granted, review any personal leave policies to determine eligibility. These policies often have set limits, but they may be at the employer’s discretion.
  • Consider a phased approach for the employee’s return to work. Part-time hours or flextime might meet the needs of both worker and department.

Is there a problem with listing “digital native” as a job requirement?

There could be, as it might suggest age discrimination in hiring.

The term was coined in 2001 by author Marc Prensky, who used it to refer to those born into the relatively new culture of the digital age—those who may never have seen an encyclopedia and can send a text in the time it takes me to select the correct contact name. Conversely, “digital immigrants” are people born before this era who have had to assimilate to this new technology.

While no actual age is associated with the term “digital native,” listing it as a job requirement can imply that you desire someone younger than 40 and, therefore, could violate the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). Of course, there could be a 45-year-old applicant who was an early adopter; perhaps he or she tinkered with a Commodore 64 computer in childhood, but whether this qualifies him or her as a digital native is anyone’s guess. And there’s the rub: The term is not defined enough to show that it’s not age-related.

At one time, employers used “recent graduate” as a job requirement. That practice has long been advised against, even though an applicant of any age could meet that criterion, including your grandmother. Therefore, unless you’d like to blaze a trail through case law, you are better off avoiding the use of “digital native” as a job requirement.

So what term should you use? Prensky himself has shied away from “digital native” and instead refers to an individual with “digital wisdom,” which focuses on relevant tech skills and experience. For me, specific job requirements that can be clearly defined, such as programming experience, expertise with certain technologies and proven ability with digital platforms, make it clear what skills the employer is looking for and help build a clear job description with essential functions that are easily identifiable. The added bonus: We won’t be reading about your company’s age discrimination case in the headlines.

What should we do about an exempt employee who frequently arrives late for work?

If an employee’s consistent late arrival is causing you to throw up your hands and curse the skies, don’t despair. It’s a myth that you can’t require exempt employees to work certain hours or schedules.

While you can’t dock the employee’s pay, you can certainly discipline him or her for tardiness, with penalties up to and including termination, assuming you have a policy or practice to back that up. In many cases, such discipline will get the employee’s attention, and you’ll have either an on-time employee or a departing one in short order.

You may welcome the latter scenario if the late arriver is a poor performer or a difficult employee. But what about that strong performer you’d be sorry to lose?

Holding a hard line for one employee would mean holding a hard line for all—even your “A” players. Otherwise, you risk a potential discrimination claim down the line. So, before determining a general stance for the organization as a whole, consider the company culture.

If you’ve got a well-oiled machine that works best when everyone starts work at the same time, then perhaps having strict standards for everyone will be the best way to achieve the results you want.

If flextime is the norm, or at least acceptable, consult with tardy employees to find schedules that work for them, with a later start time or a flexible one. These policies can be specific to a certain position or department; the receptionist has to be there at 8:30 a.m., but the account manager might not.

Telecommuting may be an option, but it’s generally not given as a reward for tardiness. Ensure that your telecommuting policy has performance and behavior standards so employees understand that this benefit can be rescinded if standards are not met.

Another option, of course, is to do nothing. This may work well in a laid-back office, especially where deadlines are met and clients are not inconvenienced.


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