my boss and coworkers are chronically absent

A reader writes:

Our department suffers from absenteeism and my boss is one of the biggest offenders. She just called in sick again today. Her habit of calling in sick regularly (not to mention coming in late and leaving early) means that the staff in our department feel entitled to do the same. This is a state agency and a union environment, so punitive measures aren’t necessarily going to work. All of the staff have tons of sick time and it rolls over into the next year. Many people think of their sick time as vacation time.

I did talk to one of the administrators (who is my boss’s boss) about the absentee problem two months ago. He said that my boss and I should work on team building. He also brought in a temp worker to cover three days a week, which was nice, but doesn’t help solve the bigger problem. I didn’t mention that my boss was part of the problem and I don’t want to look like I am ratting her out.

He said that your boss should work on team building and hired a temp?

I don’t think you’re going to be able to fix this problem, because it doesn’t sound like the people in charge care about fixing it.

I should note here that the standard advice when you notice problems with your coworkers is not to say anything unless the problem is interfering with your ability to do your job and get results. I dislike that advice, and here’s why: As a manager, I know that I’m not always going to see the same issues that my staff sees (partly because someone may deliberately shield me from that behavior), so I appreciate a discreet heads-up about what they might be observing that I haven’t picked up on so that I know where I should pay closer attention. Of course, my take on the information might differ from the person relaying the info, but as long as they’re okay with that, I’m always grateful to be filled in on something that might be a problem. Not every manager share this stance, but plenty of the good ones do.

So I think you did the right thing by attempting to alert your boss’s boss. But now that he has that information, there’s not much else you can do.

It’s possible that he is taking more action than you realize — he may be watching the situation more closely now that you’ve alerted him to it, and he may have actually talked to your boss about it. In either of these cases, it’s unlikely that he’d tell you that.

But assuming the problem continues, you can conclude that either he doesn’t care or is more concerned with avoiding awkward conversations than with managing well and holding people to a high bar. In that case, your options are to (a) resign yourself to working somewhere poorly managed, or (b) leave and find yourself a boss who is willing to do her job. (I have a bias toward B, but there may be reasons for accepting A.)

This reminds of the “when your manager won’t manage” rant that I wrote a couple of years ago, so here it is for inspiration:

{ 26 comments… read them below }

  1. Interviewer*

    I once worked in a university department where my boss was 6 months away from retirement. He basically put his feet up on his desk and did nothing the entire time. I, in turn, gradually took on his job and relished every bit of it. He trusted me and gave me the freedom to run with it.

    Maybe you could do that – you know, in order to back up your boss while she is out all the time. Grab tasks from people seeking her out: "Is there something I could help with?" Attach your name to everything you do for her, while giving the temp the more menial tasks you or your co-workers handle. Eventually, people will get trained to contact you for her work, since you are always there and provide superior service. Maybe she will get promoted out of the department for all of your hard work on her behalf, and you can take her job, and start managing those people to show up for work everyday.

    Did you investigate team building seminars? If not, jump on it today. Bring a list of possible events that your entire department could attend to your boss for approval. Let her know that her boss suggested it, and specify when, especially if she was out that day. Express profound confusion as to why: "I don't know, maybe everyone is doing it? Didn't he tell you about it?" That might get her attention.

    This is just a heads up for you, but it's possible the big boss mentioned team building to you because your direct boss has spoken to him about issues between you two. Hearing you talk to him about "department absenteeism," he probably thought the team building would be a good way to solve both problems. Just a thought. You may want to tread carefully and be sure you are doing stellar work and not irritating her.

  2. Anonymous*

    These people have so much accumulated leave that its rolling over year to year, which means they've been working very, very hard for a very long time. They've earned a break and its none of OP's business whether they take their earned leave for a physical illness or to repair their mental health.

  3. Anonymous*

    The entire explanation is this:
    "state agency and a union environment."

    Nothing will ever improve at this workplace, for any reason, ever. That's what unions at government workplaces are for: making sure our tax dollars go to finance frequent vacations, sweet benefits, and fat pensions for union members no matter what they do (short of killing or raping someone while at work, and some police unions protect you even if you do that!). Then temps and part-timers have to do the actual work in return for a few pennies, no time off, no benefits, and no job security.

    Um, I mean, unions are there to fight for the rights of all American workers. Everyone benefits from unionization. Yeah, that's it.

    (Nope, I'm not one of those part-timers hired to band-aid the bullet wound. No sir.)

  4. Molly*


    The funny thing is…I applied for my boss's position a year and a half ago and didn't get it. Now I have more experience and a master's degree under my belt, so I have the choice to leave and go somewhere else or stay and do exactly as you suggested.

    I spoke with my boss's boss today (boss called in sick again!) and he admitted he made a mistake in hiring her over me. Oh well. So, I will keep striving to be the best and either I will get a promotion or a better job. Win/Win.

  5. Anonymous*

    this only seems like lose to me if you don't also get a decent amount of sick time. Clearly your company isn't in charge of saving lives, so it doesn't seem to matter whether people are in the office or not.

    This sounds like a really sweet job in all respects. Don't rock the boat, take those Fridays off to fly to Hawaii or Reno. Also Win/Win.

  6. Mike*

    I find it rather silly that folks are blaming the problems on the fact that it's a government agency or a union environment. The working world in general is rife with problems of bad management and employee behavior. Do folks mean to tell me that they've never had a lazy boss or coworker in the private sector or without a collective bargaining agreement?

    Unions are made of people, just like companies and governments. Some work well, some are dysfunctional.

  7. Anonymous*

    Does your state have a fraud, waste and abuse hotline? The state auditor generally likes to hear about agencies that are wasting resources. You can usually report anonymously and I know that my state takes hotline reports very seriously.


  8. Anonymous*

    I worked in a similar environment at a state run law school in new england. I had one coworker take an entire summer off due to an imaginary illness (she returned with a tan. Hmmm.) and several others who would disappear for days at a time with no explaination. To be honest, I found it to be frustrating but was somewhat relieved to not have these people around since they often did more harm than good on the days when they DID show up! I eventually became tired of working for such an ineffective failure of an institution and found a better position elsewhere. The sad fact about that type of workplace is that it will simply never change. Your best bet it to leave for someplace better rather than languish there.

  9. Mike*

    One more thing I'd like to point out:

    People who are sick with chronic illnesses or those caring for family members with chronic illnesses oftentimes miss work. Also, they oftentimes don't ask their coworkers for permission to care for themselves or their loved ones before taking time off to do so.

    Frankly, it's not your business why someone is gone, it's the business of management and HR, and only to the extent that someone is missing for a good reason. I find it disgusting that so many are willing to judge someone simply because the have a tan or are gone more than they personally believe is needed.

  10. Anonymous*

    Everyone including alison seem to be jumping to conclusions. Has it occured to anyone that some or all of these folks might be approved for intermittent fmla. Also lots of employers don't want to know why employees are absent. All that usually matters if they have enough leave and whether or not they've followed the right procedures in asking for time off. The hiring of a temp could easily be to cover for someone who has a foreseeable need for time off

  11. Class factotum*

    People who are sick with chronic illnesses or those caring for family members with chronic illnesses oftentimes miss work.

    Yes and when they miss work, they do not do their job. How much work is it fair for someone to miss before she is replaced? It is a hardship on everyone else to have someone who rarely shows up, regardless of the reason.

  12. Mike*

    @ Class factorium

    Well, they are entitled to as much sick leave as was stipulated in the contract signed between the employee and the employer.

    I mean come on, if the sick leave has been earned why shouldn't it be used?

  13. Ask a Manager*

    Actually, sick leave is a bit different from vacation leave, in that it's only supposed to be used in cases of legitimate illness. That's why an employer can require verification of the illness (but they can't and don't require verification that you're taking a trip to the beach when you use vacation leave). They can even tell an employee who's taking a lot of sick leave that they won't approve any more for a certain period of time without a doctor's note. And employees can be disciplined or even terminated for abusing sick leave, such as lying about the need to use it.

    it's also legitimate to say to an employee, "I understand that you've had a lot of colds lately, but your frequent absences are putting a strain on your coworkers, and I need to require that you be at work reliably from this point forward, unless there are truly extenuating circumstances." (Note: Colds aren't covered under the ADA, which is why you can say this; it would be different if it were, say, cancer.)

    So in sum, employers actually do have the right to more closely manage how employees use sick leave, even when they have the accrued time available to them to take. It's different from vacation time in this way.

  14. Anonymous*

    I respectfully suggest that it's none of the OP's business why the boss and coworkers take their sick time, or leave early or come in late. The OP did not mention that work isn't getting done, just that s/he doesn't think the other people are putting in enough face time in the office. I sincerely hope that the OP never has to face a chronic illness for himself for a family member, and have to work with petty busybodies who are watching everyone else's time clock instead of focusing on their own work.

  15. Anonymous*

    AAM: Sick leave is only to be used for sick time IF AND ONLY IF that is the company's policy! That may be the policy where you work and everywhere you've ever worked but it most certainly is NOT the case everywhere. I'm really surprised that you seem unwilling to accept the input that several people have mentioned–not every company cares about how an employee uses sick time.

    Many companies recognize that punishing healthy employees who successfully pass long periods of time without contracting an illness is counterproductive and that these employees shouldn't be forced to work more days per year than their colleagues for the same salary.

    Since OP has not stated that her employer has a policy prohibiting the use of sick time for personal use, it is wrong to assume so in your evaluation of the situation.

  16. Anonymous*

    The original poster said that her boss had a "habit of calling in sick REGULARLY." That sounds like a problem to me.

  17. uhura*

    True, but OP didn't clarify the company policy re: vacation time. As in, do they have it or is all time off in one bank and to be used at the employer and employee discretion as long as certain processes are followed?

    At my previous company we had a bank of time (TOP – time off paid) that could be used either to make up for time you were out sick or for requested days off for vacation, errands etc. There were specific rules about how the time had to be coded with payroll and guidelines how the use of time was negotiated between the immediate manager and the employee – but that was it. And we were also bargained for employees.

    If the OP workplace is like this, then we're missing too much information to make the correct call on her boss and coworkers absenteeism. For all she knows, people are perfectly within compliance being away from the office as much as they are – and I agree with a previous commenter who points out that the OP doesn't say that the work isn't getting done, just that people are out of the office frequently. Big difference. They also didn't mention if they were hourly vs salaried employees.

    Lastly, a big thing at my previous company was confidentality regarding personnel and payroll issues. If they have the same policies, she may have no idea how her coworkers time is being coded, whether they suffer from chronic illness, or took vacation time. Or whether people are telecommuting or working from home. And OP really has no way of knowing whether her bosses boss is just covering their butt by being vaguely reassuring, because that boss may not be able to share the "real" situation that's going on.

  18. Amy*

    Years ago I worked in a retail environment, where I had a GM who had chronic attendance issues. In that kind of environment, her absence resulted in a lot of last minute schedule changes for the rest of the management team, and it caused a great deal of resentment towards her. When the DM would call looking for her, we just truthfully told her the situation each time and eventually it caught up with her. She requested a transfer to a store closer to home and they would not recommend her as a GM – she had to go at a lower position. It will eventually catch up in some way.

  19. Ask a Manager*

    Uhura, since the original poster said that they're all calling in sick, I'm going on the assumption that it's not telecommuting or taking personal time. The thing about calling in sick is that it's not scheduled in advance so that plans can be made to minimize the impact; it's typically last-minute without warning and so can really cause inconvenience. It's also different from "hey, I'm taking a personal day today" because it precludes the ability to say "actually, today is a really bad day for that because of ___, so how about Friday instead?" You're not going to say that when someone says they have the flu.

    That said, I agree with you that there could be more going on here that the poster doesn't know about — but if that's the case, then the manager needs to do a better job of communicating the culture, because she's allowed at least one employee to think that she's running a free-for-all.

  20. Anonymous*

    We have a very similar situation at my organization and there are a few things to be aware of when assuming that people are just not showing up for work because they are calling in sick when they aren�t or are just sneaking out early every Friday.

    First, as many people have already commented on, FMLA. As an employee in a department you are not typically privy to another employee�s medical conditions or status and the time they are taking off that you see as slacking might be approved and legitimate time off.

    Second, FLSA. If the manager is an exempt employee they are expected to perform their duties for a set salary regardless for the quantity or quality of the work preformed, i.e. as long as their getting the work done they aren�t held to the 40 hours a week for a full-time job as hourly employees typically are. If said manager is able to get the work the manager is responsible for done in less than 40 hours, no problem.

    Now, from what it sounds like in this situation these two caveats probably aren�t the case and the manager isn�t on FMLA and even though she might be classified as exempt it doesn�t sound like she is getting her work done and isn�t living up to the responsibilities set forth in her job duties. The only thing you can do is make the manager�s boss aware of your concerns and let them deal with it. If the boss wants to allow his direct reports to come in late, take days off as sick days without being sick, not show up other days, take unscheduled long weekends or whatever else they are doing and the boss is ok with it there isn�t much you can do about it other than finding a new job or learning to live with it.

    It�s bad management but that�s not uncommon. If the decision makers and leaders of the organization don�t want to enforce the rules then there�s not much you as a lowly employee can do about it. Policies about time and attendance, quality of work, and job performance are there to prevent low performing employees or bad apples from existing within the organization. However, as a professor at U of M said, if the HR polices aren�t used to ferret out low performers the high performers become demotivated.

    That�s what it sounds like is happening at your organization.

  21. Anonymous*

    I had a similar problem with my last manager, who had a nasty habit of turning up at 3:30 in the afternoon with a full days worth of commentary, which led to the rest of us having to stay late to deal with her. Since she owned the company, there wasn't a whole lot we could do about it, and after a while of driving myself crazy, I just had to learn a few things!

    The most important thing was realizing she wasn't just being lazy. That's the biggest thing I took from the OPs post: she thinks her coworkers and boss are lazy. She never mentions are they not completing their tasks? If they're getting their work done and it's simply a matter of them not being available physically, try other ways. I actually found it easier and more straightforward to do certain tasks over email with my boss. And moreover, if they're finishing their work, how is it any of her business if they leave at 4? Why should watching the clock tick down when you've completed your work be a virtue? It's not quantity of time put in, it's the quality of the work that matters!

    Also, what's the office cycle like? My own industry is task based- we have a crazy period at the end of each month, then a lull at the beginning. And we all tend to take a few long lunches or mental health days during the lull, to prepare us for incredibly heavy work days and long overtimes and lunches at our desk during the busy period. Does that make us bad people? Did it make our managers incompetent for looking the other way? No. Maybe the OPs coworkers aren't calling in sick – maybe they're taking some time between tasks to regroup.

    Frankly, I loathe clock watching offices. A time clock, to me, indicates a lack of trust or respect for your employees. Treat them like children who may only have recess at certain times and they will behave that way. The current workplace culture I see all the time is a 24/7 system where you're always connected- the OP can't possibly know if Sally coworker is calling in sick because she's been burning her mental oil on a big task, or if Johnny Collegue is working from home that day or what.

    Take advantage of a flexible workplace that will treat you like a human being and not burn you out, and get your nose out of other people's business! And if your manager is, like mine was, a goon who likes to sleep in and take long lunches, deal with it: entitled and lazy will get their due eventually, but stewing over problems you can't change will only hurt yourself.

  22. Anonymous*

    I'd say these co-workers are just taking PTO time they've built into the system. Many are probably lowballed into the jobs they have. The generous PTO was the incentive when they were hired. How many have 300+ hours of PTO ?

  23. Molly*

    As the OP, I just want to clarify that I am not a clock watcher. We have to staff a busy service desk and when people miss work, others have to cover for them, so tasks are not getting done.
    If people come in late, they usually make it up by staying later, so that's not what I am concerned about.

    I question the absenteeism because of the timing of the sick leave – before scheduled vacation or holidays or, like today, when one of our staff called in sick and missed a big meeting she previously said that she did not want to attend. There is a definite morale problem in our department and I don't think I can fix it.

    Anyway, thanks for the feedback.

  24. Anonymous*


    "If the manager is an exempt employee they are expected to perform their duties for a set salary regardless for the quantity or quality of the work preformed, i.e. as long as their getting the work done they aren�t held to the 40 hours a week for a full-time job as hourly employees typically are. If said manager is able to get the work the manager is responsible for done in less than 40 hours, no problem."

    WTF? Where do you work and where do I sign up? I'm a salaried advanced degree professional, and I have to track my time in 15-minute increments every day! We (a department of similarly-credentialed mature professionals) have been lectured frequently about coming in at 8:45 instead of !gasp! 8:30. I would LOVELOVE to have a workplace like the one you outline where professionals are respected.

  25. Patrick*

    It's insane how many commenters act like their civil liberties would be violated by the notion of being held accountable for their absences from work. We're all very lucky to be working in a nation where many of us office dwellers have the luxury to come and go as we please and where we are extended a fair amount of understanding when we become afflicted with more serious/long-term conditions.

    And whether or not it aligns with your philosophy, the bottom line is that almost all jobs reserve the right to place regulations on your use of sick leave (within reason) and can terminate you for abusing the privilege.

    Personally, I find chronic abuse of sick leave to be frustrating. That said, my inclination is to keep that gripe to yourself so long as the absence in question isn't affecting your ability to complete your work reasonably. After all, people who abuse sick leave are probably deficient in other areas and will probably weed themselves out sooner or later (almost certainly later because firing bad employees involves too much red tape — but that's a separate rant).

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