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Hey, Your Biases About Cancer Are Hurting Everyone!

When you picture someone with cancer, what comes to mind? Bald, skinny, and sunken eyes? Yup, me too. You're not alone.

But that image you hold can hurt your company, managers, and teams dealing with an employee affected by cancer.

Why? Because it's wrong.

When an employee has cancer, most managers and HR leaders make decisions for the employee with cancer based on their incorrect biases about cancer, which causes misunderstanding and could even cost you a valuable employee.

So how do you avoid the biases?

  1. You recognize you have them, which you just started!

  2. You get curious and ask many questions to get a clear assessment of what is needed and not needed.

When you first consider a new HR initiative. You have to take an assessment before moving forward with any plan to understand the real issue! Doing an employee and company assessment is no different.

Last week, I walked you through the seven-part company assessment (HERE) when an employee has cancer. This week, I'll introduce you to Step 2—an Employee Assessment.

You may be thinking, "Kim, I don't need to do an assessment. I know that the employee affected by cancer will be out of work. I know I need to inform them about FMLA. Beyond that, there is not much we as a company can do."

And to that, I would say, "You are mistaken!" Your cancer bias is getting in the way of seeing all that you CAN do with a little bit of effort. And that little bit of effort will go a long way!

The employee assessment will provide you with valuable information that will remove many of your cancer biases and provide you with information you can use to guide their manager and their team. It will also show you the kind of support the employee with cancer wants and needs. There are four parts to the employee assessment.


What is their work plan? With the advances in cancer treatment, not all cancers cause side effects that will take out the employee. Over 50% of those diagnosed with cancer continue to work. Now legally, you can't ask for specifics such as their prognosis (which is a rude question anyway) or what kind of chemo they will be receiving (which is an assumption). But you can ask what their work plan is. Will they need to take consistent days off due to treatment or for tests and doctors' visits. Those are legal and important questions to ask. If the employee doesn't yet know, make a point of checking back in with them frequently.

Communication Assessment:

Do they intend on sharing their diagnosis with others? Has the employee shared their diagnosis with their manager? Who needs to know? Other important questions to ask are: Does the employee want the information shared and if so, with whom and how? Based on the answers to these questions and a few others, you and their manager can build a communication plan. It's an essential part of supporting an employee with cancer as well as their team and manager. If you say nothing, rumors will fly, and trust and productivity will be lost.

Project Assessment:

Understanding what projects the employee is working on is often overlooked in most organizations. If an employee is a manager, understanding this is vital. With the information about how much time off they will need, the information you get will help you devise a plan that will answer the questions that other employees will have: who will I report to or who will work on this project? One giant caveat: DO NOT remove projects from the employee's responsibility without first understanding their work capacity. This is one of the places where a cancer bias interferes to the detriment of all.

Employee Point Person:

One of my clients was a well-liked manager. He had not considered that people from different departments would want to wish him well in various forms when he was out for one month. I suggested he find a point person from the office responsible for conveying gifts, food, and well wishes and disseminating emails about progress. He asked a team member to fill this role.

The result was this email. "Kim, asking me to find a point person at work was so key to my recovery. I didn't feel the stress to respond individually, which made my wife happy, but I received the well-wishes. It was brilliant. Thank you for the suggestion. "

Look, an assessment isn't some sexy tool that will save the day, but it is a vital tool that will help everyone with their day-to-day duties at work. Depending on what you do with the information, an employee assessment can build employee engagement and productivity!

Cancer and other health crisis aren't going away. What you do to help the employee, their manager, and their teamwork through it, together, matters.

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