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On Research Podcast – Research and FMLA: Building HR Relationships

Season 1 – Episode 10 – Research and FMLA: Building HR Relationships

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is crucial in research, offering eligible employees 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to address personal needs without jeopardizing their careers. This promotes work-life balance, maintains project continuity, and contributes to the overall success of research efforts.


Episode Transcript

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Darren Gaddis: From CITI Program, I’m Darren Gaddis, and this is On Research. Today I spoke with Tanya Brown, the senior director of HR Consulting at Vanderbilt University. As a reminder, this podcast is for educational and entertainment purposes only. It is not intended to provide legal advice or guidance. You should consult with your organization’s attorneys if you have questions or concerns about relevant laws and regulations discussed in this podcast. Additionally, the views expressed in this podcast are solely those of the guest and do not represent the views of their employer.

Hi, Tanya. Thank you for joining me today.

Tanya Brown: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.

Darren Gaddis: To get us started today, what is your educational and professional background?

Tanya Brown: So I have a Bachelor’s of Arts in Social Sciences with a minor in Psychology, and then also a Master’s of Science in Human Resources Strategic Management. I have been working in the human resources field for over 15 years and have worked in multiple industries, including the private sector, city government, medical centers, and higher education. My most recent experience is at Vanderbilt University, and I really work closely with a lot of our research areas. I have worked in multiple areas of HR, but I have a significant focus on leaves administration. I’m currently the senior director of our HR consulting team, the HR business partners, and I also have workers’ comp and leave under my purview.

Darren Gaddis: Our conversation today is going to be about all things FMLA. To ground our conversation today, could you explain what FMLA is and how it impacts higher education?

Tanya Brown: Of course. Now, I wish I had tons of time because we could spend hours talking about FMLA, but I’ll give you the highest-level detail here. So FMLA is the Family Medical Leave Act. It’s the federal regulation that was put in place in the 1990s and provides job and benefit protections to employees when they need to take leave, either for their own medical condition or to care for a family member. Any higher education organization that has 50 or more employees in a 75-mile radius must comply with this regulation. And those of you with public institutions, you have to comply regardless of the number of employees.

Now, the other thing that’s important to note with FMLA is that an employee is eligible for these protections if they have worked for an organization at least 12 months and have worked 1,250 hours and the 12 months preceding the need for leave. So this means that many employee classifications found in higher ed could be eligible such as staff, faculty or research faculty, postdocs, research assistants, and more.

Darren Gaddis: When thinking about FMLA on a college campus, beyond HR business partners as yourself, how many administrators and/or faculty use FMLA in a research setting?

Tanya Brown: Administrators and faculty, of course, are hiring staff to help them in that research setting, and they also have others individuals there as well, including postdoc, sometimes graduate students, et cetera. And it is really important for them to understand that FMLA applies to all of those individuals. So anybody that’s considered an employee in the organization may have protections under this law, hence administrators and faculty must be aware when FMLA comes into play and when to inform employees of their right. If an employee is out of work for more than three days, and this could be continuous, it could be intermittent, and it’s their own medical condition or to care for a family member, they may actually have rights under the FMLA and have to be informed of those rights and allowed to take that time off without any retaliation or discrimination. And to be honest, it’s that faculty and administrator’s responsibility under the law to notify those staff members and those employees of those rights. And many times, they’re the frontline and they know first before anybody else.

Darren Gaddis: Could you walk me through what happens if an administrator or a faculty member who’s aware of an employee’s need to use FMLA leave or an employee who is entitled to FMLA leave and doesn’t have a conversation with either that employee and/or HR?

Tanya Brown: That’s a really great question. So technically, under the FMLA, an individual themselves can be liable for not following the regulations. So a faculty member and administrator doesn’t know that a person needs to take FMLA or doesn’t know even the rights that they may have, and they don’t afford that to that employee. The employee can file a complaint to the Department of Labor, and that faculty member or administrator might actually be personally liable, not just the organization but them themselves. So it is really important that they understand the law and what the employees are entitled to and ensuring that they follow those regulations.

Darren Gaddis: And an administrator or faculty member not knowing about FMLA does not excuse them from not granting an employee FMLA leave. Is that correct?

Tanya Brown: That is correct. They can’t play the I didn’t know card in this circumstance, because they’re expected to know because they are managing staff.

Darren Gaddis: For grant-funded projects, are there specific or different requirements for reporting FMLA leave?

Tanya Brown: As far as grant funded projects, there are some things that come into play, but the most important thing to note is that FMLA does not require an organization to pay an employee for that time that they’re missing from work. So at face value, reporting and tracking of FMLA leave should not be any different for those on grant funded projects versus institutional funds. However, most organizations do require an employee to use some type of paid leave bank when they’re out. So that could be a sick leave bank, PTO, et cetera, and that then does have some implications as it relates to grant funding.

So it’s really important in those circumstances to review the awarding entity’s policies to determine if that pay leave can be charged to the grant. Every awarding entity has something different, so it is really important that you pay really close attention. In many cases, the awarding entity is going to look for the organization to have a paid leave policy that is consistently applied to both grant-funded and not grant-funded program. So that’s why it’s really important that as an organization, you do have those policies in place so that you can then apply that to the awarding entity’s policies and ensure that you’re doing that correctly.

Darren Gaddis: And from your standpoint as an HR professional, what are some of the best practices for training faculty, administrators, and staff on FMLA?

Tanya Brown: I think the most important thing to do is to make sure that faculty and staff and administrators are aware of the regulations. They don’t need to know what we need to know in HR, all the little tiny details as it relates to FMLA, but they do need to understand, one, what the employee is entitled to, and the regulations are really [inaudible 00:06:50] that it is an entitlement. So they have to know that those employees do have those protections both for pay and benefits, for any time that they need leave for themselves or a family member. So it’s really important to go through that training. I think it’s also important for them to understand that many classifications of employees are eligible. So it could be postdocs, graduate students, it could be faculty even themselves that are eligible.

And then I think it’s most important to know how do they then engage with the office that is administering that leave, whether that’s the human resources office internally in their organization, or some organizations use a third-party administrator to do that. So they need to understand how to get those employees connected with the right people. They can make sure that they get those leaves processed correctly.

Darren Gaddis: Do you have any recommendations for faculty members who might have a grant that is being managed by a postdoc or a doctoral student?

Tanya Brown: So I’d say in those particular circumstances, it’s always really good to just ensure that if a postdoc is somewhat leading that staff or that research project, that they’re even in the know of what those FMLA guidelines look like. My rule of thumb is if anybody is managing an employee in any firm or fashion, they should understand what FMLA is and what rights an employee is afforded after that. That’s always going to just ensure that we don’t do something that we didn’t intend to do. People who don’t know that FMLA exists sometimes, especially in our research world where we’re trying to meet certain deadlines and things that are bound by the grant, we may say, “We can’t let you take that time off for X, Y, Z surgery.”

One of the things that a lot of organizations do is they have administrative staff that are within that area. For example, we have administrative officers in our area, and so they’re there to be a support factor in those circumstances. So if there’s an individual in a lab who may need leave or even any other type of personnel issues, a lot of times they’re connecting with that administrative person to ask for support. Again, it’s just knowing where to go to and just being familiar with things that could come up.

Darren Gaddis: What can administrators do to ensure that research teams are fully supported by human resource departments and human resource professionals?

Tanya Brown: Yeah, it’s funny because most people will see human resources as a place to go only when something has gone wrong. I always say I’m part of the principal’s office, but we really should be used as a proactive resource. And that’s not just in the vein of FMLA, but in a lot of different things. Individuals that work in HR have a ton of knowledge. They understand what needs to be done to ensure an organization is in compliance with employment laws and regulations. That is not something we expect everybody else out there in the organization to know. We always have an open door too, and I’ll tell you, I’ve never met an HR person who wasn’t, “Please come to me when you need something and reach out for support.”

So I would encourage research teams to reach out often to their HR team, letting them know what your plans are as it relates to personnel, what challenges you’re facing, so that you can ensure a solution that’s good for you and the organization and ensures following any laws or regulations along the way. And this is even more true in the space of FMLA. It’s such an employee-friendly regulation, and a lot of times people don’t realize when they’re mis-stepping. HR not only will help you navigate those regulations, but will help you to navigate resources to keep the research moving forward.

Darren Gaddis: And in closing, what else should we know about research and FMLA?

Tanya Brown: Although the world of research seems very different compared to many other areas of an organization or even other industries out there, it’s important to remember that the FMLA applies to employees in this space just in the same way as it does. Our friends over in the Department of Labor really tease out different types of industries when they wrote this law. And where it gets even more tricky as it relates to grants is that ability to charge that paid leave options that we talked about, and in other cases in bringing in temporary workers. And there are some times where even a PI or a faculty member may need to take leave, and they may be the one who’s running that research. It’s important to see under those grant funding what options you have to pull in a secondary researcher, to be able to keep that research going.

So my best advice is really, like we’ve said, to work closely with your human resources team, review awarding entities’ policies closely so you can ensure compliance, and do that in conjunction with the FMLA regulations. Although it may seem challenging when you have someone on your team who’s going to be out for a long period of time, there are a lot of options out there that can ensure that research continues to move forward. However, it’s important to follow those regulations to ensure that there isn’t a perception of discrimination or retaliation that can result in a much larger and costly challenge.

Darren Gaddis: Thank you for joining me today.

Tanya Brown: Thank you so much. It was my pleasure.

Darren Gaddis: Thank you for listening to today’s episode, and be sure to follow, like, and subscribe to On Research with CITI Program to stay in the know. If you enjoyed this podcast, you might also be interested in other podcasts from CITI Program, including On Campus and On Tech Ethics. Please visit CITI Program’s website to learn more about all of our offerings at I also invite you to review our content offerings regularly as we are continually adding new courses, subscriptions, and webinars that may be of interest to you, like CITI Program’s Survey Research Design: Planning, Implementation, and Ethics course. All of our content is available to you anytime through organizational and individual subscriptions.


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Meet the Guest

content contributor tanya brown

Tanya Brown, MSHR, PHR, SHRM-CPVanderbilt University

Tanya Brown is the Senior Director at Vanderbilt University. She has 15 years of experience in Human Resources in many industries. Tanya has a bachelor’s in social sciences with a minor in psychology from the University of Arizona and a Master’s in human resources strategic management from Bellevue University.


Meet the Host

Team Member darren gaddis

Darren Gaddis, Host, On Research Podcast – CITI Program

He is the host of the CITI Program’s higher education podcast. Mr. Gaddis received his BA from University of North Florida, MA from The George Washington University, and is currently a doctoral student at Florida State University.