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Tell It Like It Is

Q. I took some time off from my career to care for my mother before her death. Initially, I took a leave of absence under FMLA (the Family and Medical Leave Act). Then, I left my job knowing that my employer could not hold my job for me indefinitely. My company reorganized and had lay-offs during the time that I took care of my mother. I have re-applied for my old job (which I really loved) but I don't think they will have an open position for a very long time. I need to return to work. I am working through the grief and I have a pile of bills to pay too. Do you have any suggestions for how to return to the workforce? How should I explain this period of unemployment? I am reluctant to discuss the details of my mother's illness, hospitalizations and death.


A. I am very sorry for your loss. Losing a loved one is not easy. You were wise to utilize the support FMLA provides, which is up to 12 work weeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period for the birth, adoption, or care of a child, or the care of a spouse or parent with a serious health condition, or a serious health condition of the employee him/herself. The Department of Labor website has a full description of FMLA at www.dol.gov/esa/whd/fmla.com.

One of the challenges people face when a family member becomes ill, is communicating with others. Many people feel this information is private. They prefer not to share the details of the impact of the illness, or their own plans and need for time to support the family member. They may not be prepared to make any commitments to their employer, especially when they do not know what the future holds, and have limited insight into any timetable.

Sadly, this is when communicating with an employer can be the most valuable, especially as it relates to retaining your job. You say you left your job, knowing that your employer could not hold your job "indefinitely". Was this at the conclusion of the FMLA leave, or prior? I consulted Attorney David Conforto, founder of Conforto Law Group, P.C. a Boston-based boutique firm concentrating in all aspects of employment law and dedicated to the representation of employees. Attorney Conforto explains “Under FMLA, upon an employee’s return to work, the employee must be returned to the same position or to an equivalent position with equivalent benefits, pay, status, and other terms and conditions of employment."

Most likely you needed longer than the 12 weeks of FMLA job protection, as many people do. I encourage them, and you, to communicate as much as you can with your employer about the circumstances. Companies have their challenges to run their business, and many are highly sympathetic to the circumstances of personal situations, particularly with highly valued employees. I have seen great flexibility to support returning employees.

I do hope that even though your past employer has had reorganizations and layoffs, that you are communicating with human resources and previous managers about your potential for re-hire. Face to face and live conversations remain the most effective methods. In uncomfortable situations, many people choose to use email. Try to move past that discomfort. The experience communicating live will also serve you well as you approach prospective employers.

Your return to the workforce should be supported by your former colleagues. This network will be able to make introductions to companies, and may even be able to make introductory phone calls for you, where they tell the story of why you had to leave the organization. Though this will help, you will still need to be prepared to discuss the difficult time, your personal choices, and your current readiness to return to work. Life happens, and your reluctance to discuss your mother’s passing is understandable. At the same time, I believe you will find supportive people who understand the situation, and are more focused on the skills you bring to the job and your work ethic.

Practice a concise explanation: "After 6 years with Company Name, my mother became ill, and I chose to take FMLA leave to care for her. After a very difficult 6 months (or whatever the timeframe was) she passed away. My former employer went through some financial changes during that time, and eliminated a number of positions. My manager assured me if they could have held my job open for my return they would have, which I appreciated hearing. So this is the reason I am looking at new opportunities like yours."

This answers the basic questions of why did you leave your organization, why didn't you go back, were you a good employee, and are you ready to return to work. You don't need to expound unless questioned further, and remember to keep bringing the focus back to the job, and why you make the perfect candidate.

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