While some can work remotely during the coronavirus pandemic, other people simply don’t have jobs that allow for that. During the coronavirus pandemic, the economic impact on businesses has forced the hand of many employers to temporarily close or reduce their workforce to protect the company from financial ruin. Many companies have chosen to furlough employees, rather than lay them off.
Furloughed employees can be a much better alternative to layoffs for both companies and employees. However, until COVID-19, they were not frequently used in the United States. During the Great Recession, only 0.5% of the US workforce participated in furloughs, while one in five workers experienced a layoff. Today, amid the pandemic, many companies have turned to furloughs, creating a path for employees to return.
From the business perspective, it helps them survive an economic downturn but retain the talent the business needs to get back up and running when the time comes. From the employee perspective, the primary benefit of furloughs to employees is that they have a job to return to.
Now that some states have begun releasing plans to allow certain businesses to reopen, ending statewide stay-at-home orders, companies are encountering unprecedented territory. Bringing furloughed employees to work will require employers to grapple with a host of challenges. Return-to-work plans should vary based on local and state directives and factors like the nature of the workforce, geography, and industry—now is the time for employers to lay the groundwork for implementing specific return-to-work plans.
Empathy and sensitivity go a long way
During this process of planning, it’s important to understand that you can’t erase the inevitable pain that furloughs cause to employees. Employees who return after the furlough is over may have extremely complicated feelings. A recent international study of more than 2,000 employees conducted at the end of March and early April 2020 in Australia, France, Germany, New Zealand, Singapore, the UK, and the US, indicates that furloughed workers are 37% more likely than those who have been laid off to report declines in mental health amid the pandemic.
This is thought to be a function of the stress introduced by being out of work without a sense of when, or if, they will be called back. Understanding this is important for employers as they prepare to bring furloughed people back to work.
So, what’s the best approach to handling the onboarding process of furloughed employees? Your company should be thoughtful and sensitive in its approach and impeccable in execution. Here are nine tips to help with re-onboarding of furloughed employees:
1. Avoid employment discrimination risks
Realistically, companies will not be at full operations upon reopening. In these circumstances, employers must be cautious in determining who to bring back to the workplace to mitigate the risk of potential discrimination claims based on the decision not to bring back other employees at the same time.
Employers need a documented, non-discriminatory reason for choosing which employees to rehire or return to work. These reasons could include factors such as seniority, operational needs, or past performance issues. Decisions about who to bring back into the workplace cannot be based on an apparent higher risk of COVID-19 complications.
The EEOC has said in recent guidance that employers cannot unilaterally decide not to hire individuals who are over 65 or pregnant because of COVID-19 risks without running afoul of federal discrimination laws.
2. Have a repeatable process
Make it as easy as possible for the employees to reacclimate. When rehiring many at once, cutting manual tasks is critical. When employees can complete their employment forms through a digital portal before the first day back, everyone keeps moving.
Make it easier for them to succeed in new roles with an onboarding plan that helps them define goals, acclimate to a new team or division, and ensure they’re performing their best.
As the cultural aspect of an organization is generally woven throughout onboarding programs, you’ll want to pay special attention to establishing a culture in the programs you offer. Consider virtual engagement activities to account for the shift to more remote work, as well as social distancing in offices to help build morale and camaraderie.
3. Welcome each one as you would any employee
Start with an offer letter and state all the necessary information. Take this opportunity to reassure them about what’s changed—and what hasn’t—when it comes to their position, salary and benefits, and how you will be ensuring workplace safety. This letter will now supersede any previous terms of employment, so it’s essential to get all the details right:
- Responsibilities/job description
- Return to work date
4. Be extremely transparent
Indicate in clear terms whether any of the employee’s terms of employment have changed. Even if there are only small changes, not disclosing them clearly will only lead to resentment. For example, if changes in employment affect their exempt status or if salaries and/or hours have been reduced across the board, be clear about this.
5. Have a backup plan
For an employer, one of the main risks of this process is that their top talent will get jobs elsewhere. And, furloughed employees have the right to seek new employment. Employees may have found alternative employment while furloughed or simply not wish to return to work at this time.
Give employees a choice of whether to accept the offer to return or reject it and have their employment terminated. For employees that do not wish to return, be understanding and supportive of their choice.
6. Explain benefits status
Employees will naturally want to know how the recall from furlough affects their company seniority, benefits, any accrued PTO, and sick leave.
7. Provide training on new safety procedures
The furlough is over, but the pandemic isn’t. Employees should still work from home if they can. If this isn’t possible in your industry, it’s an employer’s responsibility to create a safe work environment and work to promote social distancing. Onboarding should include efforts to educate the staff in:
- Scheduled handwashing
- Regular disinfection of surfaces
- Enforced social distancing
- Reduced customer capacity
- Staggered shifts
- Any industry-specific requirements
8. Provide reassurance
This is a time of high anxiety, and you can’t be expected to predict every question a returning employee may have. Offer employees an open-door policy to reach out privately with any questions and concerns.
9. Provide ongoing support
A furlough period will test your company culture. Managers should not assume that they are in the clear once a furlough has ended. Employees will still need frequent and transparent communication about the state of affairs and recovery plans, along with the reassurance that the future is bright with an explanation of how they all fit into that future.
The onboarding process will be the first test of our recovery—but critical to the rejuvenation of the furloughed employee’s journey with your company. The better structured and organized, the faster the recovery can happen. Human resources, IT, and learning and development teams should work together to ensure that the onboarding of furloughed employees is smooth, and the content presented and required of employees is as comprehensive, concise, and referenceable as possible.
What to Do Next
Interested in more tactics to smooth the path of returning to work? Visit “Take a Holistic Approach to Employee Well-Being for an Optimal Return to the Workplace.” This blog addresses the topics of taking care of the whole employee: their physical, emotional, and mental well-being. The best practices mentioned by the leading HCM research firm, i4cp, are based on the research of high-performing organizations and correlate with business performance.