Need advice on taking a long leave of absence from work
July 5, 2013 1:10 AM   Subscribe

I need to ask my boss for around 6 months off from work to care for a sick family member. Help me figure out how to do it right.

I'm a mid-level software engineer at a giant company where I've worked for about 2 years. I took a week of regular vacation from work to visit a family member in a different city who has been sick for some time. I just got here, and discovered that they are in much worse shape than I had gathered from phone calls. I need to spend about 6 months in this city to take care of them (it is unlikely they will live more than 6 months).

I am not concerned about money. I have enough savings that I can not get paid for six months and it won't be a big deal. However, I am very concerned about impacting my job prospects in the future negatively. I do not want to have a difficult conversation in future job interviews about why I was not working for an extended period of time.

As I see it, I have 3 options:
1) Take my entire vacation allotment for the year (3 weeks) plus 12 weeks of FMLA leave. This only gets me to 4 months though, so I would likely have to ask for additional unpaid leave. Also, I am frankly worried about being bored out of my mind while sitting around in a hotel room waiting for things to happen. I would prefer to keep working in some form for at least part of the time.

2) Ask to telecommute for 1-2 months, and then take a long leave of absence. I am not at all certain my boss would allow me to do this though. He is pretty old school and may well not allow it. Not sure how to explain to coworkers why I get to break the rules and work from home.

3) Resign my position. Work on open source projects or short term contracts for a couple of months, then take off entirely for a couple of months, then plan to get a new job when this is all over. I am very worried about how this would look on my résumé though.

Clearly I am going to have to have a very difficult phone call with my boss on Monday (remember, I am still on vacation and he has absolutely no idea about any of this). I need some advice about what I can realistically expect, and how to ask for it. I am basically terrified of getting fired or being unemployable in 6 months. I am worried he will accuse me of not being honest with him about my relative's illness (although I was mostly in the dark myself). What is the right thing to do here?
posted by miyabo to Work & Money (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Perhaps you could telecommute as a part-time independent contractor for your current employer to stay on top of your critical projects until you are ready to return to regular full-time work? The high turnover costs of hiring and training a new employee (who may turn out to not even be a good fit) should make this an appealing option for your employer.
posted by Jacqueline at 1:31 AM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

First talk to your boss to see if you can work anything out with the possibilities you've noted. If you can't, quitting is absolutely an option if your skills are at all in demand. I've quit my silicon valley electrical engineer job to travel for one year twice. The first time I got my old job back (and got some hits on the resume before the offer was official and when the economy was otherwise crap). I recently got back from the 2nd trip and I've again had legit hits on the resume and one interview. Something will pan out before long. There are only a few industries out there where it would kill your career, and software in general is not one of them.

I understand why people don't want to quit their jobs especially in this economy, but the fact that you have a job today provides nothing more than an illusory belief that you will still have a job tomorrow. If you start from that premise you can go into the conversation with your boss with confidence. Good luck.
posted by MillMan at 1:35 AM on July 5, 2013

The conversation of such a gap is not at all difficult.

"Why is there a 6 month gap?"

"I took the time off to care for an ill relative. The issue has mercifully been resolved."

So, ask for 2 and fall back to 3. Any human being worth their salt won't give you a terrible hard time about "keeping him in the dark", as illnesses are private things and people usually understand that.
posted by inturnaround at 2:17 AM on July 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Don't assume that the three possibilities are the only ones available. Talk to your boss about the situation and see what options there are. You could be able to do some sort of very-part-time arrangement that would benefit all involved, or something else that nobody has thought of. If you resign before finding this out, you won't ever know for sure.
posted by xingcat at 3:14 AM on July 5, 2013

Clearly I am going to have to have a very difficult phone call with my boss on Monday

I don't think this ought to be a phone call. Whether you quit or do some kind of PT/FMLA/telecommute, you have existing and upcoming projects to delegate, meetings, general housekeeping (even literally cleaning out your desk). Consider your options and write out your scenarios and go back to work after your vacation and discuss it with your boss in person. Otherwise someone else has to do all that for you and that will affect your references more negatively than a family/hospice-related leave of absence. I'm sorry that you have to do this.
posted by headnsouth at 3:34 AM on July 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

What headnsouth said. This is not something to discuss by phone. You want to have this conversation with him face to face.

That said, hope for the best but prepare for the worst. Make a list of your options, and also prepare the documentation for any kind of transfer of knowledge you need to do. While the reason for doing it by phone may be 'I don't want to go back, I want to stay here and do the caretaking', you should at least have that one-on-one in person to explain yourself and do what you might need to do in the office itself.

Good luck. I had to do something similar with my grandmother many years ago, because her brother - my great-uncle - could no longer deal with her issues and I had the least to drop in doing so. It's not easy.
posted by mephron at 3:50 AM on July 5, 2013

I think you give your boss a heads up by phone Monday and announce that you want to brainstorm mutually beneficial options with him/her when you return as scheduled. Then have the "real" conversation in person. Regardless of the outcome with your job you'll need to go home to deal with logistical matters before diving into life as a full time caregiver. That trip might as well be sooner and do double duty as a job saving measure.
posted by carmicha at 4:05 AM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Two things you should check on:

"FMLA" does not equal "paid leave". It just means they are required to give you the time, under certain circumstances.

However, your employer's sick leave policy may allow you to use paid sick time to care for family.

I hope you can make this difficult situation work for you. You are doing a good thing.
posted by shiny blue object at 4:55 AM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm a mid-level software engineer at a giant company where I've worked for about 2 years.
Unless you are deeply underperforming in your job or you work in a pathological group that you would be happy to quit anyway, your manager should be able to help you work something out. Good software engineers are hard to find and, once found, expensive to hire. Your manager won't be pleased that you are going away for six months but, unless he/she is an idiot, will vastly prefer arranging a suitable leave of absence to quitting and re-hiring.
However, I am very concerned about impacting my job prospects in the future negatively. I do not want to have a difficult conversation in future job interviews about why I was not working for an extended period of time.
As a hiring manager in the tech industry, I can assure you that this won't be a difficult conversation. Two years is a perfectly reasonable stretch of time to be at one job. Even if you have to quit to care for your sick family member, that demonstrates a level of responsibility and willing to prioritize the things that matter in life that any manager that you would be willing to work with should respect.
I am worried he will accuse me of not being honest with him about my relative's illness (although I was mostly in the dark myself). What is the right thing to do here?
If this is a serious worry, then you have a shitty boss and this is a great opportunity to quit and then pick up a better job in six months. Don't jump the gun, though. Give your boss every opportunity to be a decent human being.
posted by b1tr0t at 5:56 AM on July 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

Here's how I did it: Me "I need to take some time off to care for my mom."
Boss "ok. Do you know when you'll be back?"
Me "well, she's just gotten a hospice recommendation, so probably less than 6 months."
Boss "can you do any work while you're gone?"

And so forth. I did some phone interviews from my parents' house and wrote my columns every week, the other reporters split up my local assignments, and somebody else laid out my paper for me. The payroll person applied all my sick leave & vacation first, so I wouldn't not get paid until necessary. Arranging my time off was the least of my worries that summer. I think I ended up being gone a little over 3 months, so I used like 8-9 weeks of FMLA. I had been in that job about 2 years as well. I didn't have an employment gap because FMLA means you don't have to leave your job, plus I did a limited amount of work even while I was gone.
posted by toodleydoodley at 7:04 AM on July 5, 2013

I think the key here is not to negotiate with yourself, and to go in to the conversation with your boss giving him or her the opportunity to the the right thing.
posted by Aizkolari at 8:15 AM on July 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

What is the family member's relationship to you? FMLA only covers leave taken to care for a spouse, parent, or child (or next of kin in case of a wounded servicemember - but that doesn't sound like your situation). If your relative is not your spouse, parent, or child, FMLA will not apply.

As others have said, is there any way to have this conversation in person? Additionally, even if your leave is approved, it seems...irresponsible to start a 6 month leave with literally no notice. Could you return to work for 1-2 weeks to transition your duties to your replacement (either temporary or permanent)?

If you do end up choosing to resign, the gap itself won't hurt your job prospects. Stay current, keep in touch with colleagues, and do networking during your leave as time allows.
posted by pecanpies at 9:27 AM on July 5, 2013

A couple years ago I had to go home for a little bit (ended up being about a month but I wasn't sure how long it would be when I left) to take care of a family member. I worked for a small nonprofit although they had very rigid HR policies. HR actually wanted me to take FMLA but my boss worked out an arrangement for me to keep working because it was better for everyone that I continued working - for me for my sanity and paycheck, for them because there was nobody to really cover me. Definitely talk to your boss.
posted by radioamy at 9:43 AM on July 5, 2013

Don't try to do everything in one phone call. When you first broach this with your boss, he will not have an answer for you. He'll need to think about it and consult with other people at your company, including HR. It's a big company, which means there will be rules he has to follow and he may not be able to do whatever he wants.

Here's what I'd suggest. Send your boss a heads-up e-mail as soon as you can, laying out the basics. Something like "as you know, I've been visiting (sick family member) while on holiday. Unfortunately, it looks like the situation is much worse than I realized, and I'm going to need to take a significant amount of time off work to care for this person." Tell your boss you're sorry that this has happened, and that you don't want to inconvenience the company. Ask for a phone call during which you can explain the situation more fully, and explore options together.

On the call, explain what's going on, and talk through the options. It sounds like your most-preferred solution would be to move to part-time remote working for about six months, and then return to full-time on-site work. Your boss may be sympathetic to this, assuming you're a decent performer, because it would enable him to avoid the (significant!) hassle of replacing you, as well as the immediate problem of handing all your work over to other people.

After the call, write up the whole conversation and send it to him. Clearly lay out your most-preferred option, as well as other less-preferred options (labeled as such). Explain what you would do to make part-time remote work possible: like, "I would be able to join the daily stand-ups using Skype," or "I could be consistently available every day from 8-noon," or whatever. Close by asking him what you can do to help resolve the situation: does he want you to liaise directly with HR on it, is there any additional information he needs from you, etc. Write the e-mail so it includes all the necessary information, so that he can forward it to his boss if necessary, to HR, etc. Basically, try to save him the work of filling in details: you want him to be able to forward it with a quick note at the top saying something like "HR, can you make option #1 happen." Be your best and most professional self: thank him for his patience, apologize for inconveniencing the company, be clear that you enjoy your job and want to come back once the personal situation is resolved.

That's your best path to making this work. One point you should be cautious about: do not accidentally be absent from work without permission. If you're expected back in the office and can't be back, make sure you get approval to extend your vacation for a week or two while you get everything else resolved. If you just don't come back, it is likelier that they will terminate you.

Good luck!
posted by Susan PG at 10:38 AM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

For what it's worth, women routinely return to work after 3-4 and sometimes 5-6 months of maternity leave. Employers can roll with it. You say you work for a giant company, which I think is to your advantage in this case.

I don't know the structure of your company, but before you call your boss, you might call your HR department to get a sense of what your options are. I agree that you should go back home long enough to talk to your boss in person and wrap things up for an orderly handoff if you do plan to take leave.

First, though, take a few more days to assess your relative's situation and see what resources they have available to them--or that you can arrange for them. It sounds like you are surprised by their condition and they are not getting the support they need--but it may be that you do not have to be the one to provide it, at least not immediately. You do not have to take FMLA leave in one chunk--you may use it in bits and pieces. So if there are some local resources that can assist your relative and the commute between cities is not too taxing, you could, say, go down to a four-day week at work and visit your relative on the weekends to make sure your relative is being cared for properly.

I would not worry for a second about explaining a six-month gap to a future employer if it comes down to that--but I doubt it will.
posted by elizeh at 6:50 PM on July 5, 2013

women routinely return to work after 3-4 and sometimes 5-6 months of maternity leave. Employers can roll with it.

The OP is in the US where that's weeks, not months! And maternity leave also has lots of prep time built I to it, for cross-training other staff, wrapping up/tabling projects, etc. That would be my biggest concern If I were the boss in this situation; just calling from the family member's home rather than going back to the office first will leave them in the lurch.
posted by headnsouth at 7:15 PM on July 5, 2013

Thanks everyone. My relative actually passed away unexpectedly early so it is no longer a work problem.

After getting back, I chatted with my boss and he said people have taken up to 1 year off in similar situations with no consequences. So really I shouldn't have been concerned. I was just a little paranoid from experiences with previous bad employers.
posted by miyabo at 8:16 AM on August 12, 2013

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