How NOT to React When Your Employee Has Cancer


In 2020, the American Cancer Society estimated there would be 1,809,950 new cancer cases in the US. Of those, 43% will be between the ages of 35 and 64, prime working years. Those stats mean that if you're an HR leader who has NOT had to help a manager manage an employee with cancer, it is only a matter of time.

Most HR leaders make the mistake of jumping into action and thinking they can only help with FMLA or other benefits their company provides. Being reactive to an announcement of cancer is a sure-fire way to make the kind of mistakes that could cost your company in time, productivity, turnover, and revenue. Assuming that all you can do is provide medical insurance support is a common misconception.

Knowing what to say is essential. (You can access 5 Phrases Never to Say and What to Say Instead here) Understanding the basics of your benefits package can help. However, if you want to make a difference in employee engagement, productivity, and support, you have to go beyond the basics.

But how?

The first step is you do an assessment. After an employee (or their manager) shares the news of cancer, you must do an assessment just like you would when you build a strategic plan. As you know, understanding the tools and knowledge your organization has available will give you a clear idea of what is missing and help you build a comprehensive strategy that you can use repeatedly.

There are two kinds of assessments that I recommend, a company assessment and an employee assessment.

A company assessment provides you with an understanding of the culture and readiness of your organization, the manager and the teams involved. An employee assessment provides you with specific cancer-related information that will help you and their manager effectively support and manage the employee affected by cancer.

Today I want to talk about the company assessment.


There are six parts to the company assessment.

Culture Assessment

Many companies have mission and values statements, but fewer companies live them. So what is the authentic culture of your organization? What is the authentic culture of the team? The employee with cancer is part of? Or runs? Being able to assess this culture accurately will save you time and energy. For instance, if your company culture is competitive, the primary concern of the manager you're working with maybe on how much revenue the team might lose if their key player has cancer. Working with that manager will be very different then working with a manager who cultivates comradery on their team.

If you are new to the company, find out if the organization has dealt with this in the past? If so, ask important questions like what was done and what was the outcome? Is the employee still with your organization? If the employee left, do you have any information on why?

Benefits Assessment

Of course, you will consider your benefits, but what do they offer beyond the basics? For instance, does your insurance benefit cover a cancer wellness advocate? If your employee needed support with a medical appeal or authorization, would your team be able to help?

Most organizations have no idea of hidden benefits their coverage may offer until they ask specific questions.

Position Assessment

What position does the employee affected by cancer hold? Are they managing a large group or a small team? Are they on the senior leadership team? What size is the team they are on? In addition, what department do they work for? How crucial is their position? A simple assessment of the team will provide you with crucial information as you and the manager develop a plan.

Management Skill Assessment

The cancer is going to affect the employee with cancer and their manager and team. It's essential to understand the manager's experience in managing a crisis and having hard conversations. A new manager will need a different kind of support than a seasoned manager with a high EZ who has experience having hard conversations.

Temporary Team Support

Is there a succession plan in place? Can another employee step in the role or share the role with the employee with cancer if need be? This is especially important if the employee affected by cancer is a manager.

Legal Compliance

As an HR professional, I am sure I don't have to remind you of FMLA or your state's equivalent. Do you have someone on your team who understands FMLA and can inform the employee of their options? Does the manager of the employee affected by cancer understand the laws around the ADA?

Getting a full picture of what your organization can and cannot offer is crucial in devising a plan that will support the employee with cancer and their manager, the team, and even the company!

Next week, I'll talk about doing an employee assessment.

Want more information?

Click below to receive more insightful and eye-opening tips on how to work with an employee with cancer.

Here are two articles you may find helpful.

What your employee with cancer is considering before they disclose their diagnosis at work.

Don't say this to anyone with cancer!


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