As more states and industries begin reopening, employers are also beginning to rehire employees who were involuntarily separated via pandemic-driven workforce reductions. For some firms, including FedEx Freight, involuntary separation took the form of furloughs. FedEx Freight furloughed an undisclosed number of employees mid-April in what the company called "a difficult decision."
FedEx also said it would "continue to evaluate the environment and bring back furloughed employees as business circumstances allow." But when bringing workers back to the office, furloughed or not, employment experts say employers need to consider a number of tactical, legal and talent factors during this process, which some are referring to as "reboarding."
"The greatest risk is loss of employee engagement — both of returning furloughed employees and employees that remained on the job during the furlough period," John Land, senior principal at Mercer, told Transport Dive sister publication HR Dive via email.
Other sources agreed that engagement was the greatest, or one of the greatest, risks and pointed out that there are numerous forms of engagement risk.
"Some employees may be apprehensive about returning to the office for physical health reasons or because they may be struggling with mental health challenges, such as PTSD, anxiety and stress resulting from the crisis," Lori Sargent, VP of human resources at Randstad Sourceright, told HR Dive in an email. "Furloughed employees may also be more likely to be seeking other work opportunities and may see their return to work as temporary until they are able to find another role at a different organization."
Deciding whom to bring back
Experts say there are three main considerations when selecting the employees to hire back into the organization: current talent needs, employee sentiment and liability for discrimination in the process. Or, as Land puts it, "balancing empathy and economics"
"Employers need to recognize that both furloughed and non-furloughed employees experienced a traumatic event," he explained, "one that was the decision of the employer to do. Even though a furlough is a 'better' option than a lay-off, the furlough was still a stressful event for all involved and likely eroded the trust between employees and the employer."
No matter how the process goes, it is important to document it, experts said. That way each individual rehire is defensible, should there be a discrimination claim raised against the company. "Documentation should be in writing and easily understood by an outsider to your business," ThinkHR, an HR compliance software, noted in a whitepaper. "Document why you chose to bring back certain groups of employees before others, as well as why each employee was chosen before others in their job type."
"Even though a furlough is a 'better' option than a lay-off, the furlough was still a stressful event for all involved and likely eroded the trust between employees and the employer."
Senior Principal, Mercer
Like any employment decision, rehires are subject to discrimination complaints. If there is a perceived bias around protected traits such as age, gender or race, legal issues could arise, according to an article by three attorneys from law firm Fox Rothschild. Additionally, employers need to be wary of choosing rehires based on past performance issues, especially if those issues were not well documented prior to the decision-making.
"By working now to document the factors used to determine who will be rehired, an employer will protect itself from potential claims asserting that they 'made up' reasons after the fact to cover up a discriminatory basis for failing to rehire an employee," the attorneys wrote. They added that it would be ideal to use the same process as the one used for making furloughs when ultimately rehiring.
Employers also need to consider how their talent needs may have evolved due to the pandemic and document any changes they want reflected in returning employees.
"Team members should meet with HR and their managers upon return to realign on expectations, discuss any new workplace needs, and ensure they understand all new protocols and processes," Esi Minta-Jacobs, EVP of human resources and program management at AssetMark, told HR Dive via email.
Communicating the decision and process
Letting furloughed employees know they are being offered an opportunity to return starts with a formal letter. Like a normal job offer letter, this note needs to outline a start date and terms of employment such as pay and benefits, but it must also include acknowledgement of changes, large or small, compared to previous employment terms and any new workplace safety procedures, according to guidance from Paycor.
"Rehired employees should be given all of the information about reinstating their health benefits and paid time off, as well as retrained on applicable company policies," Sargent said.
Beyond an official letter and initial information, managers should be quick to check in with rehires.
"The employee's manager should have an initial conversation to check on the well-being of the individual and establish what challenges they are facing and what support they may need. Managers can use this conversation to update the employee on the vision of the company, any changes to the overall team structure, and most importantly, stress that the employee was and continues to be an important contributor to the organization."
"This is a time of high anxiety, and you can't be expected to predict every question a returning employee may have."
Senior Director of Business Strategy and Transformation, SumTotal
There may be other employment compliance matters to consider, as Jonathan Pearce, workforce strategies leader at Deloitte, told HR Dive via email.
"It's typical that employers refresh their hiring paperwork for employees returning from a furlough of six months or more," he said. "So, organizations can consider online or mobile completion of these forms, as well as virtual onboarding and training. Employers may also find there are licenses or certifications that have expired, and should plan for those to be completed as well to avoid any gaps or delays in [reentry]."
If an organization is rehiring furloughed employees, it would be responsible to communicate with all affected employees, even if a worker is not selected for the opportunity to return, many experts said. Particularly if there are waves of returnees, transparency and honesty during this process will ensure that employees are enthusiastic about returning to work and their future prospects.
"If you bring back half your workforce but don't communicate with the other half, they'll hear about it through the grapevine and may start calling, texting and emailing you frantically for more information," wrote ThinkHR in its white paper. "It will be best if you have a clear communication strategy and message from the outset and put people's mind at ease about the future."
Finally, to make sure that any concerns of these returning employees can come to light and potentially be addressed, experts are recommending the creation of channels for people to voice these concerns.
"This is a time of high anxiety, and you can't be expected to predict every question a returning employee may have," Brent Colescott, senior director of business strategy and transformation for SumTotal, wrote in a company blog post. "Offer employees an open-door policy to reach out privately with any questions and concerns."
There are many benefits to offering regular updates and encouraging employees to nurture a two-way conversation about progress going forward.
"Frequent, transparent communications should be a priority so that employees understand that their employers are focused on safety, engagement, support and listening to employees," Pearce said.
Returning to a post-pandemic office
Upon employees' return, employers will be expected to maintain a safe work environment. This means setting up safety procedures and precautions across newly-designed offices and making sure employees are aware of any new rules concerning hygiene and disease prevention in the office.
"The safety and well-being of the workforce should be at the center of the decision-making process for all organizations when considering bringing workers back into the workplace," Pearce said. "It is critical to elevate the human experience by emphasizing the organizations purpose, prioritizing health and well-being, and engagement for both employees working virtually and at physical locations."
It may require more formal training than people are used to around these topics, but these precautions can prevent contraction of the coronavirus.
"The onboarding process will be the first test of our recovery — but critical to the rejuvenation of the furloughed employee's journey with your company," Colescott wrote. "The better structured and organized, the faster the recovery can happen."
Technology can also play a role in keeping a cleaner, safety workplace while also helping to manage employees. Online scheduling, resource centers, feedback channels and other "digital HR services" can complement distancing measures and sanitation efforts, according to the workplace communications app Staffbase.