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The Empty Desk


May 2014 – Vol: 37 No. 5
by Stephanie Schwenn Sebring

A good plan for before, during and after can make long staff absences easier for all and help build a strong succession plan.

an empty chair at a deskAbsences can be unsettling for any CU, particularly those with fewer resources and staff. But how a CU handles an absence gives leadership the chance to examine core strengths.

“Whether planned or unplanned, a leave of absence should positively focus on preparing for the leave, boosting the confidence levels of provisional staff and, equally important, creating a formal plan for reintegrating both employees to their original roles,” says Deedee Myers, CEO of CUES Supplier member and strategic partner DDJ Myers, Ltd., Phoenix.

Responsibilities of the HR professional are more fluid today than ever before, she continues. “HR should stay involved with every touch point during an employee’s absence and offer assistance before the leave, during the leave, and upon the employee’s return.”

Look to Your Succession Plan

To make for a smooth transition during any absence, CUs need to help staff become problem-solvers through cross-training and education. When people are trained and appropriately prepared, it’s easier to manage the big issues like a leave of absence.

Therefore, the first step for any credit union is to establish an astute succession planning philosophy and then review recruitment strategies, including compensation levels, retention practices and training. “Getting to where you need to be can only be accomplished with attracting and retaining the right people,” adds Myers. It’s about developing a culture to embrace the changes that naturally occur in peoples’ lives. And, offering support in the event of the unexpected.

“This translates into bench strength—having the right people, in the right place, at the right time,” explains Myers, which circles back to your succession plan.

It also important to help managers become better leaders. “Managers need to keep people engaged while being expert and adaptive communicators.” As the credit union develops its managers, it should also develop staff to become future managers. “Assign a special project to a teller,” suggests Myers. “Find a way to cross-train staff. Have them ready to step quickly into new roles.” Then, when a leave of absence occurs, you’ll be prepared.

Re-Entry Matters

Just as important as preparing for the employee’s absence is preparing for his or her return. “It’s often a forgotten component,” says Myers. “Even if the returning employee wants to jump back in full force, it’s more constructive to gradually re-board that person.”

Depending on the length of the leave, this could take a week, a month or longer. “I have one situation where the person was out for a year and so much change took place, it is difficult to jump back in,” she says. Here a two month re-entry process is working.

For a three-month FMLA leave, build in two weeks for the employee to ramp back up, Myers suggests. “The timeframe should be mutually agreed upon with check-in points along the way.” This will help both the returning employee and the employee who’s been filling the role, perhaps for several months.

This also becomes an opportunity for HR to structure multiple conversations for the employee’s return. Myers elaborates: “An open dialogue is incredibly beneficial and allows the returning employee to learn what’s happened during his or her absence, issues to be addressed, and takeaways from the person filling the position.”

Conversations for Success

When structure is added to the process, all employees win. Myers suggests implementing a planned communications schedule for each employee’s return. A schedule could look like this:

  • Returning employee checks in and has conversation with the person filling his or her role. Acknowledgement is made of the interim employee’s contributions.
  • If a supervisory position, a second conversation could review team strengths and weaknesses, as well as gain feedback and recommendations.
  • Next, logistical issues, like hours, scheduling, or current marketing promotions are reviewed.
  • Finally, a closing conversation would extend a thank-you to the person who has stepped up, and assistance for the employee to reintegrate to his or her original role gracefully.


More often than not, the employee who successfully steps up during a leave of absence will soon have the opportunity to gain a promotion.

A Work/Life Balance

At $1.5 billion/120,000-member United Federal Credit Union, St. Joseph, Mich., “we work hard to ensure that we leverage a leave of absence with another employee’s training,” says CUES member Cindy Swigert, chief human resources officer at United FCU. “Of course, it’s easier if you can plan ahead for it, like with a birth of a child, but we’re always prepared in the event of an emergency, too.”

Even with 480 employees, United FCU staff functions much like a family. When there is an extended leave, staff step up to help. “With 22 locations, we’re accustomed to sharing staff with other offices and providing training throughout the employee’s United FCU career,” adds Swigert.

Cross-training is highly important. “We’ll use overtime when needed to maintain our excellent member service standards, and we often hire ahead when we anticipate a leave of absence. But the best defense is having a workforce groomed and ready to step in when a leave occurs.”

United FCU also implements what it calls stretch assignments. “Here, a talented employee temporarily steps into the role of their superior.” It can work at the teller, member service representative, department or even the branch manager level. For example, a stretch assignment can be used for a branch manager interested in career growth. He or she may oversee multiple offices during another manager’s leave of absence. “This can serve as excellent preparation for a branch manager transitioning into a vice president role.

“Succession planning and leave of absence strategy are intertwined,” reiterates Swigert. Succession planning allows for business continuity during a leave of absence. Similarly, leaves of absence can provide opportunities to develop talent for succession.

Swigert also stresses the importance of compensating an employee commensurate with the responsibilities added during the stretch assignment. “Operating in six states and three time zones, we know, first-hand, how critical training and preparation for these changing roles can be,” she says. Typically, the CU offers a temporary increase in base salary, but it depends on each individual situation.

Myers recommends additional compensation as well. “For a job well done, a bonus is appropriate. Be sure to note this exemplary performance in the employee personnel record.

“I also suggest checking in with the person a few weeks after completion of the stretch assignment. With a stretch assignment, the individual expands their capacity for managing multiple commitments and after the stretch assignment is completed might need or want to fill that expanded capacity with more responsibility. You do not want them to get bored and move on,” she explains.

If the leave of absence doesn’t have a set end date, United FCU may fill the position on an ongoing basis; but the employee on leave will be welcomed back at an equivalent position.

To cover absences for more specialized positions, like IT or compliance, the CU often looks to its vendor-partners for assistance to keep systems running smoothly. “When this occurs, it’s important to communicate with staff. They need to know how or where they can find the information they need,” explains Swigert.

Morale: The Intangible X-Factor

“We work hard to create a family-friendly work environment,” adds Swigert. “We offer perks to keep staff motivated and engaged, but when coping with long-term absences, leaders also step up to keep energies and morale high.” For instance, a VP may bring in pizza for lunch or fill in during peak times. “Being visible and available to staff are the intangibles that boost morale.”

There are times, too, when a CU needs to take intangibles a step further to sustain that inspiration. To keep staff energized, in January United FCU launched a new work/life balance program through Best Upon Request, Cincinnati. It’s a concierge program subsidized by the CU and is offered free to employees. The program is designed to aid staff in many daily personal tasks, including dry cleaning, shopping, online research and even errand running.

“We’re the first credit union to offer Best Upon Request,” says Swigert. The program offers concierge services, insured and bonded, across the U.S. “The concierges can do product and pricing research on consumer goods, make appointments, complete online shopping or ticket purchases, etc. They can also arrange for local group discounts, or for onsite auto services such as oil changes.

Requests can be made by email, fax, voicemail, intranet or phone. The concierge will notify the employee when the request is completed. [The CU] pays for the concierge service, so employees only pay for the goods or services purchased by the concierge on their behalf.

“All of us at United FCU work extremely hard to honor work/life balance for each other, whether it’s for an extended absence or simply to meet day-to-day needs,” concludes Swigert.

Generosity Gives Huge Paybacks

$4.8 billion/319,000-member ESL Federal Credit Union, with more than 650 employees in Rochester, N.Y., also realizes the impact employee morale can have on member service, growth, and strategic goals. “This year, we were voted one of the top 25 medium-sized workplaces in America,” says Maureen Wolfe, SVP/director/human resources and community relations. It’s especially relevant since two-thirds of the scoring comes from staff.

Awarded by the Great Place to Work® Institute, San Francisco, the CU competed against hundreds of companies across the country and participated in a rigorous selection process. This included a comprehensive employee survey and an in-depth questionnaire about company practices. Applications were rated on five dimensions with respect to staff: credibility, respect, fairness, pride and camaraderie.

“We’re very generous to staff whenever they need time away from the job, whether planned or unplanned,” Wolfe says, emphasizing that it’s open communication that drives the partnership between the CU and staff. Supervisors are flexible and work hard to ensure that neither the absent employee nor alternative staff feels a hardship. “We have a terrific family feel within our organization. Employees know we’d work with them as much as possible to accommodate their needs.”

Wolfe also supports HR keeping in touch with the employee throughout his or her leave and upon return. “For example, when staff is on leave, we keep them in the loop with communications; we may send care packages and we celebrate with a welcome breakfast upon his or her return.” In fact, two military employees recently nominated ESL FCU for the Patriotic Employee Award, based on the commendable treatment received during deployment (including care packages) and upon their return.

“When staff recognizes us, it’s the highest compliment any HR professional can receive,” says Wolfe.

Transitioning With Baby

About 75 percent of ESL FCU’s workforce is women. “This means quite a bit of maternity leave for us,” says Wolfe.

The CU is not only supportive of family needs and obligations, but makes a point to turn a happy life event into a reason for everyone to celebrate. This show of support evolves into parties, showers or lunches.

“This is the culture that we strive to create in HR,” explains Wolfe. “An absence may create a temporary inconvenience, but staff inherently understand that it’s a time when we all step up.”

Wolfe also endorses the gradual reintegration process.

“It may be more effective to reintroduce staff slowly, perhaps starting with an initial 20 hours per week instead of 40.” Acclimating and communicating with other staff, especially those who took over during an absence, is integral to the process. “Be sure to show plenty of appreciation to staff helping out in the interim,” adds Wolfe.

The Flex Work Force

For temporary and long-term replacement needs, the CU uses a group of employees aptly named Flex. After completing a comprehensive two-to-five week training program, Flex staff travel to different offices, filling various needs, usually for member-facing roles like teller or MSR.

Consisting of up to 10 tellers and 10 MSRs at any one time, it’s a continually evolving pool of people from which to draw, serving as a training ground for future positions within the CU. Staff can preview the branches and management can preview the employees.

“This staffing model is not uncommon for larger credit unions,” continues Wolfe. “It begins with monitoring branch traffic and transactions, watching peak times and having the ability to offer Flex staff to appropriately fill core hours.” For specialized staff, ESL ensures more than one person can function in that role. “For instance, we have an employee cross-trained in payroll so if our payroll administrator is absent that critical activity is fulfilled.”

It’s also been Wolfe’s experience that most organizations do not cross-train nearly enough or for the duration of an employee’s career. “Our training is extremely robust,” she adds. This includes communications and weeks of training. Online courses for self-development are also part of the mix and available through the CU’s intranet site. And since 80 percent of positions at ESL FCU are filled from within, training takes on a particularly crucial dimension.

A General’s Perspective

When it comes to offering a flexible work environment, $267 million/25,000-member Maine Savings Federal Credit Union, Hampden, Maine, is a huge proponent. “We know the importance of being flexible and prepared,” says Rob Carmichael, SVP/HR and training. “We’re proud to offer time off for a variety of situations. With nine branches and 92 employees, including a significant number of women, we work to support each other if someone is on leave.”

One of the CU’s tellers recently left for basic training and Army Officer Candidate School. “They will be welcomed back after their leave, and we’ll do everything in our power to communicate and keep in touch throughout the process,” says Carmichael.

Carmichael himself is a retired brigadier general and commander of the Army National Guard in Maine, and recently served as chairman of the Employee Support to the Guard and Reserve. This entity ensures Maine employers understand the legality of military deployment leave requests, and helps enlisted employees communicate with their employers.

“Luckily, the vast majority of employers across our state, including credit unions, are supportive of their military staff,” Carmichael says. One of ESGR’s roles is to educate staff on their responsibilities to the employer when deployment becomes imminent. The biggest task is to encourage early and often communication between the employee and employer, “and not to wait until the last minute,” adds Carmichael.

Benefits and Training

Maine Savings FCU has a rigorous cross-training program along with a variety of “out-of-the-box” challenges to prepare staff for future roles. “Keeping our Millennials motivated can be especially challenging, so we make sure to engage them on different levels within the CU.” Special projects are often assigned to keep staff sharp.

“We had a bright, articulate, enthusiastic young member service representative who we [paired] with one of our branch managers to create a financial education course for high school students,” says Carmichael. “Together, they made several presentations to schools in our area that were highly received.

“We asked another teller with outstanding Microsoft Excel skills to do a variety of projects compiling spreadsheets of data to help us analyze various aspects of our member service activity. She enjoyed the challenge and diversity of the projects which has now led to other interesting opportunities for her.”

When returning from an extended absence, Carmichael also institutes what he calls a “modified” retraining or onboarding process. “We’ll help refresh their technical skills and, in some instances, have the employee actually sit down with our trainer for updates and learning.”

With 25 years of marketing and communications experience, Stephanie Schwenn Sebring established and managed the marketing departments for three CUs. As owner of Fab Prose & Professional Writing, her new focus is on assisting CUs and industry suppliers with their communications needs.

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