By KEVIN RING, the director of community growth for the Institute of WorkComp Professionals, which trains insurance agents to help employers reduce workers' compensation expenses
Supervisors play a key role in the management of injuries, return-to-work and reasonable accommodations under an employer's workers' compensation and disability management program. While supervisors may be well trained in the functional aspects of maintaining a safe workplace, reporting injuries, investigating injuries and return-to-work programs, many fall short in their interaction with injured employees, and their well-meaning actions can be costly to employers and even lead to litigation.
Here are seven unnecessary blunders and how to avoid them:
1. Not reporting an injury at an employee's request
When hard-working employees are injured on the job, they may ask the supervisor not to report the injury, indicating that the injury is not bad and they can work through the pain. Sometimes employees hesitate to file a workers' comp claim because of pride, fear of appearing disloyal or worry about losing income. Delays in reporting can compromise an employee's rights as well as mushroom into costly claims. Supervisors should treat all injuries consistently, not attempt to evaluate the severity of the injury and help employees understand the importance of receiving appropriate treatment early.
2. Sending the wrong message during recuperation
Because the supervisor is the person who works closest with employees, the supervisor's role should involve contacting injured workers during recuperation. While the appropriate approach may seem obvious, it often goes wrong. When the supervisor doesn't convey compassion and concern or doesn't communicate often enough, the injured employee is left feeling alone and begins to worry that no one cares. When that happens, a longer than necessary recovery may occur, not to mention a lawsuit.
In other cases, supervisors may unwittingly reproach injured employees, making them feel guilty about the stress they have added to co-workers. Or, if the injury is suspicious or incurred by a troublesome employee, supervisors may goad, demanding to know when the injured employee will return to work, implying that the injury is not legitimate or suggesting the possibility of termination. An insensitive supervisor can easily provoke a disgruntled employee to seek an attorney.
Supervisors need to be empathetic, expressing concern and communicating the message that the employer cares and wants the injured employee back on the job as soon as possible. Their manner sets the tone for the entire claim.
3. Not recognizing nor communicating when a claim is going bad
Supervisors are often in the best position to understand the circumstances surrounding an individual's response to an injury and to notice a problem at an early stage. If an injured employee is dissatisfied with the time it takes to get their checks, prescription reimbursements or medical appointments or feels the medical care is inadequate, the supervisor should convey this to the responsible parties and request intervention. Supervisors also have access to the rumor mill and may learn that the injured employee is engaging in suspect physical activities. Supervisors need to be alert to any patterns or trends that can cause a delay in return-to-work or may suggest fraud.
4. Mismanaging the return-to-work process
Even well-developed, written return-to-work programs with meaningful work assignments, time lines and clear criteria can be challenges for supervisors. The dynamics of transitional duty can create scheduling headaches and irritated employees, particularly if the injured employees are not well liked. There can be harassment and teasing when employees can't perform the job and this attitude will discourage the injured employees' commitment to the program.
Supervisors also are responsible for ensuring that injured employees work within the job restrictions and don't get reinjured, as well as maintain confidentiality about medical conditions. The way supervisors respond to these conflicting pressures is key to a successful outcome. Return-to-work is an evenhanded policy that benefits all employees, significantly reduces workers' compensation costs and improves the chances of a full recovery.
Supervisors need to be positive about the program and clearly explain the rationale and benefits to all employees, while encouraging and supporting injured employees to be productive members of the team by assuring that work restrictions are respected and that the transitional duties are effective.
5. Using an injury to deal with performance issues
After a "problem" employee is injured, supervisors can become frustrated and attempt to use the injury as a way to terminate the employee. When workers' comp is used to deal with performance issues, it is a prescription for disaster. In many states, there is a presumption that the termination is in retaliation for filing the claim. Often there is inadequate documentation of poor performance prior to the injury, and once the employee is injured, termination will usually result in a messy legal battle.
While a workers' comp claim is not a shield for subpar performance, it complicates the problem considerably. Supervisors need to recognize that marginal employees are costly to the company in many ways, including an increased probability of a workers' compensation claim and address the issue in a timely manner before injuries occur. Prompt action to document poor performance followed by termination is the best practice.
Underestimating the importance of job descriptions
While a supervisor's role in the development of a job description varies among organizations, at a minimum, they are usually asked for input and to agree on the responsibilities, physical requirements and scope of the position. For workers' compensation, job descriptions of the actual and transitional job are a valuable tool for treating physicians to evaluate return-to-work timetables. Moreover, with the likelihood of increased litigation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), job descriptions are one factor that can support an employer's position that a function is essential. Supervisors need to recognize the importance of ensuring that job descriptions accurately and completely describe the work responsibilities and the physical requirements of the job and are kept up to date.
7. Muddying the waters with the HR department
Even if an employer has a clear policy that employees consult the HR department about return-to-work or reasonable accommodations under the ADA, employees inevitably will pose questions to their supervisors. Some supervisors, particularly those who came up through the ranks, want to be helpful and will discuss the issues with employees. These dialogues can be dicey and if not properly trained, supervisors can inadvertently say something that leads to litigation, violates confidentiality or has adverse companywide consequences.
Meeting the needs of the business, while being an advocate for employees, is a delicate balancing act. Supervisors need to respect the role of HR, carefully convey it to employees and be trained on their role relative to HR to handle all legal and personnel issues appropriately.
August 1, 2010
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