What to Do if an Employee or Direct Report Is Diagnosed With Cancer

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UW Health human resources director offers tips for managers and employers when an employee has cancer

If you are diagnosed with cancer and currently working, there are many things to consider when deciding if or how to move forward with your job. But what if you are a business owner or manager of a person who is undergoing cancer treatment?


“I always say, if I were in that situation, how would I want to be treated?” says Anthony Dix, director of human resources services for UW Health. “Yes, you have a business to run, but to me, it comes down to treating individuals with respect.”


There is no textbook definition for how to move forward when an employee discloses an illness such as a cancer diagnosis to their supervisor, but Dix provides some helpful pointers below. These pointers represent general best practices from a Human Resources (HR) supervisor’s standpoint; please consult with your HR representative for your specific situation.


After the employee discloses their situation to you, talk to human resources


In the best interests of both the supervisor and employee, speak with your HR Rep soon after the employee discloses their health information. If the employee has not yet spoken to HR, suggest they do so. HR can help ensure the employee is receiving the most from their benefits, including their health insurance, protections from the Americans with Disabilities Act and an employee assistance program. HR can also help ensure the supervisor is complying with legal requirements, especially in navigating the other suggestions that follow.


Create a plan with the employee, be flexible and be prepared to evolve it moving forward


Cancer treatments can be unpredictable, which means no one can predict exactly how it will affect someone who is working. As a supervisor, developing a workplan with the employee can go a long way toward helping the employee with cancer continue to work. Again, HR is a great resource for ensuring these plans are established within the confines of your organization. You may choose to work out a plan that allows your employee to work from home more, to have more flexible hours or to reduce their workload and pay proportionately while also allowing them to keep their benefits. As changes arise with the employee’s treatment, be prepared to make changes to the plan.


Assist with the team’s response to the disclosure


When and how your employee chooses to disclose their illness to the team at work is their choice – but be prepared to assist them. They may choose to tell their co-workers themselves, or they may ask you to do so for them. It is also ultimately your role to make sure that co-workers are being supportive and respectful. If co-workers ask to collect monetary donations or sick leave time, be sure that the employee with cancer has agreed to the gesture first. Also, be sure that your other employees know that their participation is voluntary. Your organization likely has policies about solicitations, so be sure those policies are being followed.


Assist with the team’s response to changes in workload


As with any long-term medical leave, there will undoubtedly be changes in work responsibilities across your team. There is no perfect or across-the-board correct way to handle the changes within your team, but a good leader knows how to navigate these discussions. Sit people down and ensure they understand the situation at hand. Also, find other ways within organizational confines to reward employees who are going above and beyond. For example, when it is time for their performance review, be sure to emphasize their extra effort. Or, find a time to take the team out to lunch.


Be prepared to make the tough decisions when needed, always keeping in mind “how would I want to be treated?”


Managers and owners do have to make tough decisions when an employee is unable to adhere to the plan you developed together. Of course, you want to make any decisions within the confines of the law. But where those legal rights end, what do you want to do as an employer? Ultimately, you do have a business to run, and you do not want to make inappropriate concessions. But again, how would you want to be treated if you were in a similar situation? Treat people with respect, and ultimately be as fair as you can be.