Risk Insider: Terri Rhodes

The Growing Profession: Absence Management

By: | March 22, 2016 • 3 min read

Terri L. Rhodes is CEO of the Disability Management Employer Coalition. Terri was an Absence and Disability Management Consultant for Mercer, and also served as Director of Absence and Disability for Health Net and Corporate IDM Program Manager for Abbott Laboratories.

We all know how extensive leave laws have become.

The ADA, the FMLA, and other laws are being joined by a growing list of legislation and regulation that mandates paid leave.

Vermont just became the fifth state to pass a paid leave law, while the U.S. Department of Labor issued preliminary regulations mandating paid leave for companies that do business with the federal government.

There is every indication this trend will continue, perhaps culminating in a federal paid leave law.

The winds of change are blowing in a direction that requires employers to understand laws in a more comprehensive way. Compliance with the FMLA and the ADA is not enough. Organizations must be able to meet, keep up with and even get ahead of the new order of leave laws.

An entire generation of absence managers is learning to think in legal and risk management terms. This is raising skill levels and the areas in which absence managers contribute to an organization’s performance.

DMEC’s 5th Annual Leave Management Survey indicates employers are adding to staff to manage compliance with the myriad of leave laws and regulations. While that can be viewed as a cost to an organization, the survey indicates the issue is more complex than just adding staff.

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FMLA, ADA, state, and even local leave laws require staff that is well-versed in not only traditional absence management, but in legal and regulatory matters as well.

An entire generation of absence managers is learning to think in legal and risk management terms. This is raising skill levels and the areas in which absence managers contribute to an organization’s performance.

In a similar way, this broadening of skills means absence managers need to work more closely with legal, IT, and other departments. This can — and does — lead to more efficient work processes. Efficient not only in terms of cost savings, but also in the new ideas that are generated when employees with different backgrounds and perspectives collaborate on common goals.

Breaking down silos reduces administrative costs and leads to new processes and ideas that enhance performance and increase profits.

This dynamic can be seen most clearly in companies in which leave and compliance has moved from tactical to strategic. These are organizations of all sizes in which leave is central to a recruitment and retention strategy.

In these organizations, the immediate cost of leave is set against the longer-term benefits that can be derived from accommodating the needs of diverse and talented employees. This is the stated rationale for expanded leave policies in growing and profitable companies like Netflix and Facebook.

This regulatory change translates into a challenging environment for absence management professionals. But it also signals a large and expanding professional growth opportunity.

Absence management professionals are becoming more skilled, which translates to being more valuable to current and potential employers. The absence management professional has an increasingly larger role in helping the organization with strategic initiatives that harness social and legislative change in their workplace.

The 2015 DMEC Leave Management Survey paints an encouraging picture not only for work-life balance, but also for the professionals who manage absence for organizations. A complimentary copy of the 2015 survey can be obtained at on the DMEC website.

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