A small-business owner seeks advice on how to balance compassion and work needs in responding to an employee who's repeatedly calling out to spend time with a dying relative.
I run a small business with a few specialized contractors. Last week, one of them called out because her great-aunt was in hospice and she didn't want to miss saying goodbye. Of course, I understood and found a replacement. She just called again — only a few hours before her shift — to see if someone could be on call for her today as well because her aunt is still alive, but still not doing well. I don't want to be unsympathetic, but she could have given more notice this time. And if her aunt keeps hanging on, I can't keep finding replacements every week. What is the most compassionate way to handle this?
Hanging on in Hospice
Dear Hanging On,
When you learn that someone you know is dealing with the impending loss of a family member, the only option is compassion. You have an implicit understanding of that reality, yet you also have a business to run. Your reaction to her first time calling out was absolutely appropriate and in line with how a good employer and a good person should respond. Your frustration at her second time calling out was also justified, especially since she could have given you more time to find a replacement.
If, moving forward, you tell "Sally" that she has to work regardless of her great-aunt's health, she may be sufficiently offended to stop working for you. Plus, you don't look good in her version of the story. To try to get through her aunt's final days while staying on everyone' good side, email all your other contractors to explain the situation to them: "As you may know, Sally's great-aunt is in hospice. As a result, Sally's availability is touch-and-go for the next few weeks. Please let me know if you may be available at short notice during the following shifts." List the times and hope for the best.
While that email is in motion, call Sally. Offer your sincerest sympathy and let her know that you want to be as accommodating as possible, but you also need to make sure her shifts get covered. Without getting into too much personal or medical detail, say something like, "I want you to be able to be with your family during this difficult time, but I'm hoping you and I can figure out an arrangement that will work for both of us. Can we agree on an amount of notice you'll give me for each shift?"
If she says, "an hour," you could gently let her know that's not sufficient. Counter with something that's actually doable and hopefully you can reach an agreement that, while still difficult for you, is at least managable. If you can't, let her know that you'll have to offer her shifts to another employee until she's able to be back at work reliably. Then you'll still need to negotiate a number of weeks and find her replacement, but at least the terms will be set.
One last option is to make yourself available during this employee's shifts for the coming weeks. While I'm sure this is far from ideal, as the owner of the business, the ultimate responsibility for its success falls to you. If finding substitutes at short notice presents a problem for any number of reasons, you may need to decide that you're the most logical person to be inconvenienced.
If her aunt hangs on for more than a month, decide that you'll reevaluate with Sally's input in a few weeks. While it's a terribly awkward thing to articulate, the family is likely also feeling it, so I may as well say this: Hopefully, for the sake of everyone involved, the situation will resolve quickly.