The FMLA and “Friends” – What Rachel Can Teach Us About Leave Transitions

You can learn a lot about human resources from binge-watching shows on Netflix (especially if you do it at work, since it’ll get you some one-on-one time with your HR department!). The Office is full of employment law violations, Scrubs and Grey’s Anatomy discuss modern problems in health insurance, and 30 Rock showcases the challenges of team leadership.

During a recent marathon of the late 90’s show Friends, I came across an episode that teaches us about the managerial pitfalls of parental leave benefits.

“Friends” screenshot from Netflix, 2017

In the real world, paid parental leave is one of the fastest-rising employee benefits. Organizations are fighting harder than ever to recruit and retain good employees who are growing families. For the rest of the working world, at least in the U.S., the Family and Medical Leave Act remains a strong, but complicated policy mandating a form of unpaid parental leave (see my crash course video on the FMLA).

While the law may appear simple, management must jump through many hoops in order to provide a fair and effective process (if they want to avoid litigation and prevent huge morale losses, that is). Policies must be established and relationships must be strengthened, in order to ensure a peaceful transition and continued productivity when the employee on leave returns to work. Friends teaches us the consequences when the process isn’t done correctly.

Rachel’s Transition Back To Work

“Friends” screenshot from Netflix, 2017

In Season 9, Episode 11, Rachel visits her workplace while out on maternity leave. She meets the temporary replacement worker, Gavin, and they engage in a tense, standoffish conversation. Rachel feels that Gavin threatens her job security, and she cuts off her maternity leave early in fear of losing her position to the temp. Rachel’s boss increases the tension by praising Gavin in front of her, causing Rachel to put her family and life behind her work – the situation exactly opposite to the aim of the FMLA.

Rachel makes up a retaliation story – to explain why she’s going back to work so soon – to Ross, who correctly identifies it as an FMLA violation. Luckily for Ralph Lauren in the Friends universe, it was just a made up story and we haven’t quite seen an actual work law case here quite yet.

“Friends” screenshot from Netflix, 2017

Legal issues here aside, we can see the tension and fear that the situation created that ultimately – in both the Friends world and the real world – hinders productivity and harms the workplace culture.

Five Learning Points

What can we learn from this episode? Here are five things managers can do to prevent a Rachel-Gavin episode at the workplace.

  1. Make the process clear
    Discuss the transition with the employee taking leave and any replacement workers (if applicable). Ensure the employee that she/he will be returning to their original position (or one that is nearly identical in duties, conditions, and pay) when they return. Explain to the temporary replacements that their role is, in fact, temporary, so that neither the employee taking leave nor the replacement worker thinks otherwise.
  2. Write down a transition plan
    When is the employee leaving and expected to return? How will you be making up for the lost productivity (ex. who is taking over temporarily?)? What are the boundaries for contacting the employee on leave (ex. vital e-mail and phone calls that may pop up)? Write all of this down and give a copy to the employee taking the leave.
  3. Be present when transitions take place
    When it’s time for the employee to return to work, meet him/her at their work space (or at least have a management representative there). Help transition the employee back and alleviate any tension in the case where the returning employee and the replacement worker meet. Be sure to thank any temporary workers for their service during the leave time, but be careful not to make the returning employee feel that their time away was unnoticed. Maintain good relationships with all affected employees as much as possible.

    “Friends” screenshot from Netflix, 2017
  4. Create a clear policy about visitation during leave
    Is the employee on leave allowed to come back to the workplace during the leave? Some occupations require more flexibility here (ex. teachers preparing for the next semester in which they return, jobs that have personal belongings stored on site, etc.), but it should be clear whether or not employees can be on site during the leave. The policy must also make clear that employees on leave cannot engage in work activities while they are on site (could lead to Fair Labor Standards Act violations related to unpaid work).  Visitation policies can also prevent interactions between replacement workers and employees on leave (the exact situation in the Friends episode).
  5. Decide the replacement workers’ futures before the post-leave transition 
    As important as it is to ensure that the returning employee feels comfortable coming back to work, it is equally imperative to let any temporary workers know their post-leave fate at the company as soon as possible. At minimum, tell the replacement worker when you are still working on a plan, so they feel they are part of the process and not completely ignored.

Good Transitions Lead to Good Work

If you create good policies and communicate expectations, you’re more likely to have smooth post-leave transitions when employees return to work. Remember that you need to consider the interests of both the returning employee and any temporary workers you moved during the leave period. With good transitions, you’ll have continued productivity, hopefully to the levels as if the leave never happened.

But then again, if Friends is our model, maybe you don’t want the transition to be too good.

“Friends” screenshot from Netflix, 2017
What are some tactics you’ve used to encourage good post-leave transitions? What other TV shows have you found helpful in understanding HR issues? Tell us in the comments!



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