Compassionate leave: a guide to the law - and doing the right thing

Published on July 25, 2019 by Gemma Dale
    HR · Resources

Compassionate leave: a guide to the law - and doing the right thing

Compassionate leave is just one of many types of leave that most employers offer their employees. Leave from work falls into two categories - what you have to provide by law (i.e. statutory compassionate leave) and what you choose to provide through your contracts and policies (employer offered leave).

It’s important that employers understand what leave they must provide. Businesses can also take a strategic view on what they want to provide to their employees in addition to statutory minimum requirements.

Statutory leave entitlement

There is a range of statutory leave that employers must provide. This includes annual leave, family leave such as maternity, paternity, adoption and parental leave, and time off for public duties. A handy list can be found here. These entitlements form a floor of rights but in practice more is often offered. A good example is statutory holiday entitlement. The Working Time Regulations provide employees with a minimum of 28 days (including bank holidays); however, many employers offer more days than this.

The reality of statutory compassionate leave

Technically, there’s no such thing legally as ‘compassionate leave’. It’s a term that we use to describe time off provided to employees following either a bereavement or to deal with difficult life situations. There is, however, a statutory right to ‘time off for dependants’. This is a fairly limited right, allowing employees to have ‘reasonable’ time off to deal with a family-related emergency.

There’s no clear definition of what is reasonable; it all depends on the circumstances. There is no requirement for employers to pay employees for this time off. The aim of the leave is to give employees time to put new arrangements in place, such as to find new childcare. So leave is typically a maximum of one or two days. If the employee still needs more time, it is usually up to them to take additional leave, typically from their holiday entitlement.

Having effective policies around leave can really make a difference to employees. You can choose to offer the statutory minimum (which in some cases could be no leave at all). Or, you can choose to put more generous policies in place that will assist your employees during some of their most challenging times. This can also help to make you a more attractive place to work.

What is good practice for compassionate leave?

A typical compassionate leave policy will provide one day’s leave for staff to attend the funeral of a relative. This usually extends up to five days' leave for close relatives such as parents, spouses or children. Some policies will go further and provide up to two weeks.

Grant compassionate leave in context

Whatever leave amount you choose to set, discretion is important when it comes to applying your policy. When a death takes place abroad or your employee has additional responsibilities in relation to a death (such as being an executor of a will) they may need more time to deal with these practicalities. There are some bereavements that mean an employee may not be ready to return to work after five days, such as the death of a child. Let managers know that they can use their discretion to do what is right in the circumstances.

Manage compassionate leave sensitively

It’s also important that managers don’t judge – every family relationship is different. Some people may have been raised by their grandparents. Others will be closer to a step-parent. When it comes to compassionate leave, the key word is compassion. Don’t quibble about what defines a close family relationship.

The employee's word is proof

Unless you really need to, don’t ask for proof of a death. Some organisations require sight of a death certificate before they’ll pay compassionate leave. This is additional bureaucracy that someone recently bereaved really doesn’t need.

Provide for each instance

It’s also important that leave is provided for each situation and not on an annual basis. Some people might be unfortunate enough to experience more than one bereavement in a year. It isn’t a great employee experience to be told that you have used up all your leave during your first bereavement.

Effective compassionate leave policies are good for employee experience and will help you to engage and retain your best people. Check your policy against our good practice guide today.

Note: Readers should be aware that from 2020, employees who experience the loss of a child under the age of 18 will be legally entitled to two weeks paid leave. This will be a ‘day one’ right, meaning employees will be entitled to it from the beginning of their employment.

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Written by Gemma Dale

Gemma Dale is an experienced HR Director and CIPD Chartered Fellow. She is a regular speaker and writer on HR topics like employee engagement and social media.

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