A reader writes:
I am a relatively new manager, and would love your help. I have an employee who, in my opinion, has a sick time problem. Or, alternatively, my workplace has a sick time problem.
Our work environment is such that my employee not showing up for work means someone else needs to carry the weight, and since it’s a very small staff group, that person is me. This involves spending half of the day doing their front-line work, as well as rearranging my schedule (unexpectedly, at the very last minute) to start my day earlier.
We have a set number of sick days for the year (12 at one day earned per month), but no other guidelines on how they can be taken, when, or with what documentation. Each year, including this year, the employee has used all their sick time, and has then started using vacation time they are “reserving” for use as sick time as they know they’ll go over the allotted amount. Sick days are always used as one-off days here and there, never as multiple days in a row. To our knowledge, there are no chronic illnesses involved, they are young, without children, and without any known-of substance abuse problems. I think she’s just “fragile” and calls in over a lot of headaches and stomachaches. If the rate of use were evenly distributed, it would be a sick day every three weeks (and that’s actually pretty much what it has been).
The only thing that seems to be truly concerning my boss is that the employee has used more than they’ve earned for the year, so if they leave, they owe us back money for time (though this is shifting, as I’m heading out on vacation and my boss has waken up to the reliability problem).
So, obviously, something needs to be said, or the policy needs to change, or both. My supervisor and I are planning on meeting with this employee soon, and I’m concerned about saying the right things. But at root, is this simply that the policy has to change and she’s done nothing technically wrong? I know you favor of a system where there are a pool of days, not simply sick days versus vacation days, but I think you’ve also mentioned that that much unplanned time off wasn’t appropriate either. What is an appropriate policy for a small staff group where an absence in a key player means that someone else has to cover their work? No one wants to be difficult about sick time — if you’re sick, you’re sick, so don’t come in — but is the policy too lenient?
First and foremost: Her reasons for being out frequently don’t matter. What matters is the end result — the fact that she isn’t reliably at work.
What often happens in this situation is that the manager thinks, “Well, how can I really tell her that she’s going to be fired for getting a stomachache and staying home? She can’t control that she has a stomachache.” (Or, “I can’t prove that she isn’t sick, even though it seems awfully suspicious.”) That doesn’t matter. Let me repeat that: Her reasons for being out, legitimate or not, don’t matter. What matters is that the employee is not able to be at work reliably. Period.
You can’t get into the business of deciding whose excuses are legitimate and whose aren’t, or whose headache was really severe enough to stay home and whose was minor enough to come in. That’s not your job. Your job is to ensure that you have a reliably present workforce. And right now, you don’t.
So you need to do the following:
1. Say this to the employee immediately: “You’ve been missing about one day every three weeks. We need to be able to count on you to be here reliably. While certainly things come up from time to time, the frequency of these unplanned absences is too high. Going forward, we need you to be here reliably, every day, except in the most extreme of circumstances. Can you commit to doing that?”
2. If the employee says that she can’t predict when she’ll get sick, then say: “I understand. But we can’t run a business well if you’re unexpectedly missing work every few weeks. We need someone in your role who will be here reliably, every day, except on very rare occasions. If you’re not able to do that, I understand, but the job does require it. From this point forward, I need you to be here reliably every day. If you continue to have unplanned absences at this rate, we would need to fill your job with someone who can commit to regular attendance.”
3. From there, stick to it. If she continues to have unplanned absences at a rate that you find unacceptable, you need to enforce consequences.
(Now, obviously you use some judgment here. If this is a long-term employee whose work has always been good and this is a recent problem, you express concern and ask what’s going on, and you’d probably go the extra mile to try to find a solution.)
4. Stop letting people take leave time that they haven’t earned, so that you don’t find yourself in a situation where an employee “owes” you time — because you probably can’t collect on that money if they leave before it’s been paid back.
If someone needs time off and hasn’t accrued the leave yet, they need to take that day unpaid. (And you need to enforce this consistently across the board, so that you’re not letting one person do it and not letting someone else do it.)
The issue here isn’t your sick leave policy — it’s that this employee is being allowed to abuse it. Put a stop to that.