columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

Two of my employees are hourly graduate students who mostly work nights and weekends when our full-time employees do not. The position is pre-professional, meaning we treat them like any other professionals, while giving them coaching and help looking for full-time work in the field.

We're clear up front that they are expected to work some hours around holidays, so that we have enough employees around to stay open. This year, one of our students said, "My parent recently died" as a reason to get out of working around any holidays, and has requested time off for smaller family events, such as a relative's birthday, because "it is important to be there since they lost someone recently." So far, I've allowed this to happen without questioning things, as grieving is tough and takes time. But she is not willing to negotiate about being around anytime around Christmas--demanding three full weeks off, saying she'll need a lot of time with family since it is such a tough time of year, and crying when she told me. I reiterated that this is her last year as a student and thus her last year getting a month off for the holidays, and she needs to get used to not being able to go home for weeks at a time.

I had assumed that this death was very recent, but I went online to search for an obituary, and found the death was over two years ago. I want to think that this employee and her family have had enough time to grieve and should get on with their lives, which means her not using it as an excuse for extra time off. However, I've never had to deal with the death of a parent, so maybe I'm being cold about this situation.

Green responds:

Well, first, you definitely want to stay away from ideas like "they've had enough time to grieve" or "they should get on with their lives." That's not yours to determine, and it's very normal for the loss of a parent to be something that people grieve deeply for years.

It's not typical, though, to ask for bereavement-related time off two years after the fact, and if the death was really two years ago, your employee is handling the time-off requests rather unusually.

But before you conclude anything, are you absolutely sure that the obituary you saw was the correct one and not, for example, for a different parent or stepparent? It would be pretty horrible to assume here and get it wrong.

If you're sure you're correct, it would be reasonable to just say to her, "I'm sorry, but I can't give you the full three weeks off. Let's talk about what we can do, while still ensuring that other people get the time off that they need as well."

I wouldn't tell her she needs to get used to not being able to go home for weeks at a time, because that will come across as trying to teach her a lesson when you really should just be direct about what you need from the person in her job. I realize that part of this setup is that you coach these grad students on workplace norms -- but I think this is just too fraught, since it's tied up with issues of loss and grieving. She'll figure this one out on her own when she needs to.

So don't get caught up in whether her requests are legitimate or in seeking out obituaries or anything like that. Just focus on being clear and direct about what you need from her, and about what you can and can't accommodate without being unfair to the other student worker or leaving yourself short-staffed. (And, in fact, that's the best lesson about workplace norms you can give anyway, because that's what she can expect from future workplaces as well.)

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