Maybe You Should Just Offer Reasonable Bereavement

by Evil HR Lady on November 9, 2010

John Hyman has an interesting post on Bereavement Leave and FMLA. Even though FMLA doesn’t require time off for Bereavement, it turns out that if a manager says so, the company has to follow through. Hyman writes:

That is, it is not required by the FMLA unless you promise otherwise. In Murphy v. FedEx National (8th Cir. 8/26/10), an employee sought and received FMLA leave to care for her hospitalized husband. When he died a week later, she took three days’ bereavement leave. Thereafter, she told her supervisor she needed 30 more days to “take care of things.” The supervisor responded, “OK, cool, not a problem, I’ll let HR know.” As it turns out, the extra 30 days was a problem for HR, which denied the request and terminated the employee, who had not returned to work.

I’m not a fan of government stepping in and telling companies when they have to allow time off, but I am a fan of reasonable bereavement leave.

I mean, honestly, how often does this really happen? I’m not talking about people who suddenly manufacture 14 different grandparents who all happen to die on Fridays. In the case of a death of a spouse, a child, or a parent, I think 1-3 days bereavement leave is utterly ridiculous. Ridiculous, I tell you.

I wouldn’t be able to see straight 3 days after my husband died, let alone perform quality work.

I understand that businesses need to make money and that’s hard to do with people out on leave, but this is not common. It’s certainly less common than people having babies or getting the flu.

If any of you have written bereavement policies that allow for long periods of time off, I’m curious to know if you’ve had problems. I’ve always worked for companies that had the silly 1-3 days off thing in the policy, but managers generally allowed the employee to take “personal leave” for up to several months. But, since it wasn’t policy, I’m sure there were people who were back in a matter of days.

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

April November 9, 2010 at 6:17 pm

I've never worked for a company with a reasonable bereavement policy. When my father unexpectedly passed away in 2009, my boss came to the funeral home to remind me that I had lots of work waiting on me and that it was budget time.

Sadly, I think this is more common than not.

I did, however, use my adult brain and decide, "budget time? so what. I'm staying with my mother."

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Anonymous November 9, 2010 at 6:47 pm

I had a very close friend who was living with me take her own life two years ago. My boss made me go home when I got the news, even though I was in so much shock that I couldn't really process it and wanted to finish the workday. He told to take as much time as I needed, and that he and the other managers would take care of everything until I came back.

I don't think we even had an official bereavement policy– it was a small company and my boss was the owner– but it was such a kind, humane response and I'm so grateful for that. It shouldn't be so rare for a boss to act like a decent, compassionate human being in such an awful situation. Like Jon Stewart says: "Be a person!"

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Suzanne Lucas November 9, 2010 at 7:04 pm

April–holy cow, your boss came to the funeral home????? I cannot even imagine doing that to someone I hated. Wow.

Anon–I'm so glad that your company was compassionate.

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Rosie1925 November 9, 2010 at 7:39 pm

When my Mom died unexpectedly, I had 3 days bereavement, then I used a week's vacation to help my sister wrap it all up, empty the apartment, etc. When Dad had a stroke, I used vacation to help the week he was hospitalized, then got my 3 days bereavement when he died.

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Ask a Manager November 9, 2010 at 7:48 pm

My policy has always been this: Go. Take whatever time you need. We'll find a way to make it work; this is more important than whatever you have going on at work.

Good employees don't abuse this kind of thing, and I cannot imagine working somewhere that made me handle it any other way, and

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Suzanne Lucas November 9, 2010 at 8:51 pm

Rosie, I'm glad you were able to take some time off, even if it was vacation time.

Ask A Manager–exactly. I was thinking about your comment and I tell you, if a former manager called me up and said, "Hey one of your former coworker's husband died. Can you possibly help us out?" I'd say, "Absolutely. What can I do?" and I don't even work there any more.

And I was thinking about when I was training. No way would you want your trainer to be someone who had just lost a child 3 days previously. Talk about wasting everyone's time.

Take what time you need. Others will figure it out.

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Suzanne Lucas November 9, 2010 at 8:57 pm

And just as an amusing side note, right after I posted the above, I got an e-mail from a former coworker asking me a question about a termination in 2005.

And you know what? I answered the question and no one even had to die for me to do so.

Because I'm nice and so are most people.

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Class factotum November 9, 2010 at 9:01 pm

One of the few good things I have to say about the corporate finance sweatshop where I worked in the late 90s is about bereavement leave.

I had been working there only a few months when I got the news that my dad had only a few days to live. (He had had cancer for 8 months.) My boss was out of the office, so I told the director, who was not a warm fuzzy guy, that I was leaving to be with my dad (in another state) and they didn't have to pay me for the time I would be gone and they could even fire me if they wanted but I was leaving the next day and I didn't know when I would be back.

He told me not to worry about it and to go.

I was gone two weeks and could have stayed gone longer. When I returned, I said they shouldn't pay me, but my boss (who was great) just shrugged and said it was too much trouble for payroll to figure out.

The VP, bless his heart, came to my office to give his condolences. Naturally, I started to cry. This surprised him and he asked, "Oh. Were you and your dad close?"

I guess he was shocked that someone would cry the week after her father had died.

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The Plaid Cow November 9, 2010 at 9:55 pm

Less than a year into my first job out of college, my girlfriend's father died unexpectedly (in another state). I got the call, told the other person on my team what happened, told him I was leaving and would be back when I could and left to go tell my girlfriend what had happened.

Though I didn't have any bereavement time, the fact that I could just use PTO for the week away from the office with zero notice impressed me. I didn't even get a chance to talk to my team lead or my boss until I got back.

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Kate November 9, 2010 at 11:24 pm

I used to work for an HR Manager who once wanted me to ask an employee what time her daughter had died — because if it was early that morning, before the employee's ordinary shift started, her FMLA really shouldn't apply and we'd have to count the missed hours towards her 3 days of bereavement.

Her argument? It was "just" her stepdaughter.

Incidentally, that was the same day I started looking for another job.

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soxgal November 10, 2010 at 12:19 am

The company I'm working for now has the standard 1-3 days bereavement leave depending on level of relationship. My mother-in-law died in a car accident a few months after I started working there. It was a Sunday and I called the office to tell them I'd be out all week to support my husband and father-in-law. I was charged non-existent vacation time for the extra days. A few months later my uncle died unexpectedly and the funeral was a work day. Uncles aren't covered under our bereavement policy but I told them I was going to the funeral. They took more vacation time. It took me almost two years to accrue vacation time I could use for vacations and not for bereavement.

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Anonymous November 10, 2010 at 2:59 am

I worked for a small company when I learned my husband's grandfather was dying in the middle of nowhere (town has spotty internet and no cell phone service). I told my boss and he said to take as much time as we needed and figure it out when we get back. All 12 of the children made it back (some travel time was 24+ hours – Canada is big) and none were hassled by their employer for taking upwards of 10 days off then and another week a couple of months later for the funeral. Considering one of them was in charge of a company's payroll(she had to call in daily from the hospital, where there was cell service,to ensure everyone still got paid – she couldn't access the computer program via internet), this was quite generous but not unusual.

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rxmom03 November 10, 2010 at 6:55 am

I had started a new job and had only worked there one month when my husband died suddenly. Along with everything else, I was worried about my job. After all, I had been there just a short time and didn't know the place well enough to know how things would go. My boss was wonderful. He told me not to worry, to take all the time I needed (I ended up taking 2 weeks). I didn't realize until later, but 2 people from work came to the funeral (and they had to travel over 1 hr to get to it). I was allowed to work my schedule around going to grief support classes. I only had 3 "funeral day" and the rest were vacation days, but since I had worked there such a short time I was amazed to even have that. That company is no more (bought out by someone else), but I still remember it fondly and think that my boss was the best.

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Suzanne Lucas November 10, 2010 at 7:07 am

I don't have a problem with companies requiring you use vacation time or having time off unpaid for bereavement. I just want them to let you have the time off.

It's unreasonable (IMHO) to expect the company to pay you for a month while you deal with the death of your spouse, but not unreasonable for them to give you the time off.

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Anonymous November 10, 2010 at 2:38 pm

The policies I've seen are more related to time off to attend a funeral. Any additional request for time off was treated just like any other request. But seriously, what is reasonable time off? Is it an ambiguous line? And is the line farther out for your best performers? I don't think you need a policy, just a good managers that can empathize.

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thomast November 10, 2010 at 8:58 pm

How do you formulate this into a policy, though? My understanding of conventional, litigation-averse wisdom about HR policies is that they should be uniform, and not offer room for judgment by managers, since one employee may be treated than another. But the reality is that situations differ – an only child who was very close to his widowed mother will need more time than someone whose estranged father dies in the same city where her brother lives. Maybe the judgment we're asking for is that treating our people the right way is more important, and likely more cost-effective, than avoiding legal action at all costs.

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Laura November 12, 2010 at 3:47 am

100% agree with this post! People don't have any compassion for anybody anymore!! 3 days, I can't even get over a bad sinus infection in 3 days and for your boss to come to the funeral home and tell you there was lots of work waiting on you?? Please! That is absolutely ridiculous!

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AgriturismoFan December 8, 2010 at 11:38 pm

I noticed that Rosie mentioned taking vacation time to visit her sick father in the hospital. While I think it's great you were able to do that, it turns out that such time would be covered by leave under FMLA. This is not meant to be correction, or a suggestion, but if other posters run into a similar situation themselves or with their employees, they will know. Also, as the OP mentions, there is no mention of taking time off for death related events in the FMLA that I can see.

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Lialik December 27, 2012 at 7:58 pm

When my dad died after being in the hospital for 2 weeks post a heart attack 3 years ago, my company told me I had no bereavement leave at all and I had to take vacation or come back to work. It was unbelievably difficult, but I did go back to work. I can’t remember the first 3 months after he death. It’s so blurry. Needless to say, I’m no longer with that company, and not only because of this incident.

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Evil HR Lady December 28, 2012 at 9:58 am

I’m so sorry. It’s utterly ridiculous to expect people to function at a high level during such difficult periods. I’m glad you are away from that company.

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Deb August 23, 2013 at 9:21 pm

AgriturismoFan – FMLA doesn’t apply to everyone. If it’s a small company, “Under the FMLA, only employers that have 50 or more employees within 75 miles of the company’s work site are required to provide FMLA leave to their employees. The requirement is commonly known as the “50/75 rule.”

I work for a small company that said they would allow 3 days of bereavement but at your own expense. We now allow the same 3 days of bereavement but paid. I’m glad I was able to help them see the importance of even a few days off.

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