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What happens when an older employee seems to forget job skills?

What happens when an older employee seems to forget job skills?


What happens when an older employee seems to forget job skills?


Johnny C. Taylor Jr., a human-resources expert, is tackling your questions as part of a series for USA TODAY. Taylor is president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, the world’s largest HR professional society.

The questions are submitted by readers, and Taylor’s answers below have been edited for length and clarity.

Have a question? Do you have an HR or work-related question you’d like me to answer? Submit it here.

Question: We have a 77-year-old employee who has been with us for 18 years. For whatever reason, the person is now unable to retain information and effectively do the job. It is disruptive because the individual continually interrupts others to ask basic questions about tasks on which this person used to have a firm grasp. This individual enjoys working and has no plans to retire anytime soon. We do not want to do progressive discipline, as this would be devastating to the employee. What are our options? – Anonymous

Johnny C. Taylor Jr.: This is a delicate situation, and you should proceed with care. The guidance of your company’s attorney or the services of an employee assistance program (EAP) might be warranted.

If you are the individual’s manager, talk with the employee about specific performance problems such as inaccuracy, missed deadlines or incomplete work. But know that, in many instances, the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits employers from asking health-related questions or making statements about an employee’s health.

The employee likely has noticed his or her decline. If the individual acknowledges an impairment, a reasonable accommodation can be explored. The employee might have a suggestion for any adjustments or accommodations, such as a schedule change or technology tool, that might be helpful.

You might also consider restructuring the employee’s job duties or changing his or her assignments. Have you thought about offering the individual a different position that recognizes his or her contributions but requires less critical thought? This accommodation would address performance issues while respecting the employee’s desire to keep working.

Or perhaps, a phased retirement might be a solution. In this case, an employee takes on a less-demanding job or works part time to transition to retirement.

Be aware that when a worker is unable to meet the fundamental duties of a job, a company is not required to make an accommodation.

An employer can request that an employee complete a fitness-for-duty evaluation, which determines a person’s abilities to safely perform the essential functions of a job without posing a threat to him or herself or others. Before an evaluation is requested, an employer should ensure that a job description for the employee’s position exists and a performance review has been done.

Additionally, if you notice true cognitive difficulties, you may refer the person to an EAP. This should be done only after consulting counsel.

With more workers wanting to remain in the workplace beyond the traditional retirement age of 65 or needing to work for financial reasons, this situation likely will become more common. Managers will want to consider how to address such an issue sensitively and with understanding before it arises.

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Q: I’ve banked more than 300 hours of vacation time, and I want to take time off. But every time I ask, my manager says I’m needed or we’re busy or “Now’s not a good time.” Vacation time rolls over from year to year at my company, so my bank of time keeps growing. My manager has OK’d some time off, but grudgingly. How can I address this? – Anonymous

Taylor: Taking time off from work is important. Not only does a vacation allow you to relax and recharge, but it contributes to your performance, morale, wellness and productivity. From HR’s point of view, taking a vacation is important.

It’s time for you to have a conversation with your manager. In preparation, consult your company’s vacation or leave policy or employee handbook and use it to help guide your manager’s decision-making.

Politely point out that you haven’t been allowed to use your earned time off. Ask when a good time would be to take a vacation and suggest that you look at a calendar together.

Be specific about dates and ask your manager to commit to the time off. When the two of you have agreed on dates, mark it on your calendar and your manager’s calendar.

In some businesses and industries, there are times of the year that are particularly busy and require the presence of staff. Think CPAs and the month of April. Absences during these times are a hardship on employers. So, ask yourself if there are legitimate reasons why your requests are denied and then adjust.

But it’s also a hardship on you if your manager vaguely agrees to grant you time off but then reneges. Make sure your manager signs off on the request so you can make worry-free vacation plans.

If you have been denied multiple times, this might be about the manager being unreasonable. In this case, seek guidance from HR.

There is no federal law mandating paid vacation time, and state law doesn’t require it.  But employers voluntarily offer it as part of a competitive benefits package to attract and retain talented employees. And for workers, there’s an additional value: It makes them better employees.


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