A few years ago, I received a crash course in the importance of balancing head with heart when serving employees. As I went about my HR routine, I would engage with a particular employee in polite banter. We commiserated on how we dreamed of retirement, shared a love for southern cooking and travel; and who was serving the best food in Seattle on any given weekend.
The banter turned more meaningful one day when the employee stated that he was experiencing pain in his abdomen and throat. Not extremely alarmed, I asked the typical Human Resources questions, “Do you need an accommodation, time off, FMLA?” I suggested that the employee take time for self care, and take full advantage of his great company-sponsored benefits.
Time passed and I was alerted that the employee was experience attendance issues by his supervisor. He was at risk for disciplinary action. Remembering the previous conversation, I reached out to the employee to determine if there was anything that we could do to support him. That’s when I learned he had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer.
This time when I asked the typical Human Resources questions, “Do you need an accommodation, time off, FMLA?” he responded, “yes, I think it’s time.” I recommended we forego the disciplinary action, and advised the employee to focus on himself and his family, to keep me informed, and to let Human Resources manage the business end of his benefits and leave activity (the “head” stuff). I assured him that I would be there as a resource, cheerleader, and confidant.
I engaged the Benefits team on FMLA eligibility, determining PTO balances and providing the employee with all the necessary paperwork he needed to ensure that his time and job were protected. Our leave team supported him with short-term disability process and qualification, we confirmed his deductibles, copays and coinsurance amounts; and connected him with his carrier to confirm specialist provider participation and coverage so that the employee would know how to plan for the fight of his life. I asked myself:
- How else can the organization support him?
- What is his FMLA balance?
- Does our life insurance coverage have an accelerated benefits rider?
- Does he have a designated beneficiary?
- What resources through our Employee Assistance Plan might be useful?
- Will he need a reasonable accommodation?
- Was there a contingency plan to support his job in his absence
- Will he be returning at all?
Shortly thereafter, the employee came into my office and told me that his cancer had progressed to stage four. I closed the door, took a seat beside him and extended my hand. He gripped it tightly and began to cry, something that he said later he had not felt safe enough to do anywhere else. I watched him crumble for over an hour. There was no meeting conference call or podcast that was more important than that time with him. I needed to be present, in that moment with “heart”. As hard as it was not to join him in his tears, that was his moment.
The employee would eventually return my office months later a shell of his former self. He looked at me and said, “the doctor says I’ll likely not see Christmas”. To hear someone speaking with that type of courageous resolve of his own impending death was profound. But he was concerned about finances during these final months and I still needed to get my “head” back in the game to determine what resources were available to him.
I advised the employee about his life insurance and confirmed that the organization had an Accelerated Death Benefit that that would allow him to take proceeds from his life insurance prior to his death to help cover expenses, I also reminded the him of his retirement funds which could be accessed without penalty due to his age, both of which were things he had not considered. I engaged our EAP representative to offer other end of life planning services that might help ease the transition for him and his family.
As he departed that day, I stood reluctantly because I instinctively knew this was the last time we would see each other. I made sure the employee had all the resources necessary to follow-up with the life insurance retirement plan and EAP vendors. When we shook hands, he wouldn’t let go, I allowed him that safe place to cry again. I walked him down to the lobby where a family member was waiting, said my goodbyes; and retreated to my office to a safe place of my own, hoping that with the right mixture of head and heart I had provided all the appropriate Human Resources tools and personal support to my employee, as he approached the ultimate life event.
William has held consulting and strategic HR roles at Virginia Mason, Mercer Human Resources Consulting, Kaiser Permanente, and Williams-Sonoma. He has a proven track record for building employee satisfaction through building leadership competencies and strong collaborative HR partnerships with leadership teams that focus on the staff retention and fostering cultures of engagement. William regularly shared his insights and experience though for a number of Talent publications including Fistful of Talent, Career Crossroads (CXRWorks), and The HR Gazette and believes that an organization’s human capital is their most valuable asset.