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Hanging in the balance

What should a company do if an employee falls ill -- wait or terminate his services? Varun Soni writes.

india Updated: Apr 25, 2006 10:08 IST
Varun Soni

"Do you know Mr Sharma, the General Manager’s Assistant? Did you notice that he has not been to office for the past month due to an illness? Do you know what he is suffering from? No? Why is there such a lack of information about Mr Sharma’s health? Has he been terminated from service, as your company does not want to incur additional costs?"

Obviously, you do not have the answers to these questions. But, is this the usual practice, or malpractice, in the corporate world? Is there any law that protects employees in such situations?

"Not really," says noted lawyer Ranjeev Dubey, "no protection is available to officers under the Indian law. There is a law for workmen, though. After exhausting his/her medical leave, an official is at the mercy of the company he works for. It is then up to the latter to decide whether it wants to wait for him/her and bear all the expenses, or replace him/her."

When contacted, most companies said that they let the employee take all the leave he/she is entitled to and that employees are terminated "only in extreme cases."

Says M Thiagarajan, MD, Aviation, Paramount Airways, "We have leave policies like privileged and sick leave, which can be accrued for a period of 120 days. When an employee falls ill, the leave taken by him is adjusted against sick leave and thereafter against privileged leave. Any leave taken over and above this is decided on a case-to-case basis. Termination does not happen unless there is an issue of non reporting."

Adds Major KV Rajan of VETA, "We have in place a leave policy which includes casual, medical and privileged leave. Sick leave cannot be accumulated. But if an employee falls sick, it is extended based on the nature of his illness and depending upon the nature of his job. Employees’ services are terminated only in extreme cases, where we deduct fraudulent activity. Otherwise, every employee is entitled to his leave and all support is given by the management towards this requirement."

Ashok Srinivasan, VP-Operations Support, Expertus Infotech, cites an example. "Sivaraman, an employee, was diagnosed with a lesion on his brain just a month after he joined Expertus. Coming from a simple background and with not much financial strength, this was a big blow to him. The company came forward and contributed Rs. 25,000 towards his surgery. Other employees also pooled in Rs. 18,000 towards this cause. Sivaraman was also paid his salary. We are glad that the surgery was a success and that he rejoined work a month ago."

But, do all companies do this much for their human assets? Haven’t we heard of a number of cases when the services of employees have been terminated if they remain ill for more than two to three months?

Concurs Anurag Batra, MD, exchange4media, "In line with the organisation's policies, an employees' services should not be terminated if his illness is (diagnosed to be) temporary. However, if the illness is one of an extended nature which exceeds an organisation's liability, a suitable exit policy should be exercised."

GrapeCity, on the contrary, does not sack employees for long absence from work due to serious diseases.

Informs Ashok Ghosh, President (Delivery Services), GrapeCity, "Apart from medical insurance plans, the employee would earn the salary for his/her leave accrued so far. If the absence extends beyond that, then it amounts to leave without pay. Once s/he has fully recovered, s/he would be welcomed back into the company."

Do business houses think that dismissing such employees from their jobs is a merciless act even though it strains the companies’ wage budgets?

"Yes," admits Padma Singh, VP, HR, Hero-ITES, "terminating an employee in a scenario, when he and his family need us most, is really inhuman. Even though it adds pressure to the company's cost, it reconfirms the belief our employees have in us -- that we are a family and we as an organisation are there whenever they need us."

Adds Pranay Kumar, Corporate HR Manager, Kwality Group, "Termination is not the ultimate ‘solution’ as it sends a negative message. It affects the efficiency and morale of other employees. So, rather than abandoning someone, one should find ways to improve the situation by training, job evaluation, employee engagement etc."

However, K Pandia Rajan of MaFoi Management Consultants points out that a recent judgement gives a company the right to terminate an employee for an authorised absence or leave. "The employer is not required to look into the reason for prolonged absence," he says.

ML Taneja, Executive Vice President, HCL Infosystems, disputes this saying that by waiting for its employee, a company retains a trained and more committed hand. But, how should such a situation be handled?

Says Thiagarajan, "The best solution is to go for insurance packages that are available in various areas like personal accident insurance and Mediclaim. In case of hospitalisation, it is not even necessary for an employee to pay cash to the hospital. The company pays the premium and this differs according to the levels of the staff. Some percentage of the premium is also taken from the employee’s salary. The insurance protection helps employees psychologically as well as monetarily."

Adds Taneja, "The best answer lies in allowing the employee to decide whether to continue or quit. Termination of services is definitely not a solution. As an organisation, we need to take care of our people, with the motto, ‘leadership based on trust’."

Samir Modi of 24x7 believes that termination should be carried out in a way that the person is compensated well and his/her dignity is respected, and this does not demotivate the rest of the workforce.