my co-worker is chronically absent

A reader writes:

I work in a children’s program part-time alongside another teacher who works the same hours as I do (about 10/week). We are the only 2 regular teachers in this program. Anyway, my co-worker chronically schedules appointments on the mornings we are scheduled to work. She has many crises in her life so between her and her children, she has many appointments. Historically she has done this in the past, but I thought that with a new director/boss, it would be a brand new start for all of us there.

Anyway, our director/boss knows about her upcoming appointments and we are scrambling around to get substitutes, but it’s difficult for me to work alongside someone new every time we run a program because then I have to fill them in on what we’re doing. It’s difficult for the children because they don’t know who’s going to be there from one week to the next. In the next 3 weeks, she will only be working 1 program out of 9 scheduled.

What can I do or say to my boss and/or my co-worker? I did ask her the other day not to schedule appointments during the mornings we’re scheduled to work (2 mornings/week!!). But I need some help in how to deal with this so I don’t become negative about work. I want to enjoy my time there, not worry constantly about who’s going to be there and who isn’t.

Ideally, your boss would sit down with your coworker, tell her that the program needs to count on her being at work reliably, and ask whether, going forward, she’s able to commit to being at work reliably, with absences only in rare circumstances. (And ideally she’d quantify “rare,” since not everyone defines that the same way.) And she’d let her know that, while she’s sympathetic to your coworker’s situation, the job does require a reliable presence and if that’s not realistic for your coworker right now, the job isn’t the right fit. And then she’d stick to that, meaning that if the problem continued, your boss would replace her.


The fact that your boss hasn’t done this indicates that either (a) your boss somehow doesn’t know the extent of the problem or its history or (b) your boss is a pushover who isn’t assertive about holding people accountable.

You said that your boss is new — is it possible that she doesn’t realize the history here and thinks that your coworker’s upcoming absences are an aberration?

If I were you, I’d talk to your boss, explain the duration of the problem, and explain the impact on you and the program. You want to do this calmly and unemotionally — don’t attribute motivations to your coworker, just focus on the facts and the impact. If you get the sense that your boss feels helpless to do anything about it — which hopefully isn’t going to be the case but, realistically, might be — suggest that if she agrees that reliable attendance is an essential part of the job, she should find out if your coworker can meet those requirements going forward, and hire someone new if your coworker can’t.

From there, it’s in your boss’s hands. At that point, you’ve done what you can do, and if your boss doesn’t act, you probably need to accept that you have a boss who doesn’t set standards and hold people accountable to them — in other words, a manager who doesn’t manage.

{ 9 comments… read them below }

  1. Jamie*

    With the frequency with which you're having to get someone to substitute is there anyone among the subs who's particularly good and super reliable?

    If so would there be anything wrong with grooming someone to be the preferred replacement – so you had some stability and the co-worker's absences wouldn't be so jarring?

    If you did that you might even look forward to the days when she called in, so you could work more efficiently with this other person. If that happened to be reflected in your attitude and the director noticed the positive atmosphere when the sub was it could spur her toward making a permanent change.

    Even if it didn't get your co-worker replaced it could still help you to develop a more stable working relationship with one of the subs – it can minimize the chaos.

    It stinks that you have to find a way to deal with the totally valid resentment because, it appears, that your boss isn't holding people accountable.

    Why can't people just show up at work when they are supposed to and do their jobs? I will never understand why that's such a challenge to some people.

  2. Anonymous*

    Jamie thinks "Why can't people just show up at work when they are supposed to and do their jobs?" I think "Why can't I ever get any of these jobs where you get paid for not even showing up?" People complain about them often enough, they've gotta be out there!

    (just kidding of course… most days)

  3. Evil HR Lady*

    Anon–I'm with you. Maybe that's what I can say in job interviews: I'm looking for a job where I can totally slack off but the manager will be too wimpy to actually deal with it.


  4. Anonymous*

    I had a similar coworker when I was in retail management. She'd call and say she was going to be late, then late would turn into a full call-out. I just let her do it – our DM would call looking for her and when she wasn't around when she was scheduled, it eventually came to a head. Hopefully your boss will take some action – I know it's a miserable situation to be put in.

  5. Anonymous*

    If ANYONE has suggestions on how to screen for this issue of not-showing up for work, please let me know.

    I work in a call center, most of the folks we hire know what that type of environment is. And yet we still end up terminating people on a regular basis for not showing up for work.

    Extremely frustrating!

    As a side note, we do everything we can to make it a fun place to work and whenever we do hire we have people recommending their friends to apply so I like to think it's not the environment.

  6. Jamie*

    If there is a way to screen for those who are internally rather than externally driven I am sure AAM knows it (I certainly do not).

    I do think most performance problems including going AWOL come down to how people approach their jobs far more than the job itself.

    I temped for quite a while when I was starting out – and some of those jobs were awful. But I showed up on time and did the best job I could because I wasn't doing it for them – I was doing it for me. I couldn't abide people thinking I was a slacker or incompetent, even though I would never see them again. Hire someone who will do a good job because of their own ego, and not as a favor to the company, and then at least there will be consistency.

    For what it's worth, when I was on the market I would never apply to a place that claimed to be a fun place to work. I interpreted that (rightly or wrongly) as being lax and not performance oriented – and I personally have to be in a performance oriented environment to find any job satisfaction.

    I'm not implying that your workplace is lax – just that the wording might be a red flag to those of us who love the days the metrics are published and loathe the birthday cakes and company picnics.

  7. Joey*

    I agree with alison's suggestion except the part about telling the boss how to handle the problem. Most bosses I know wouldn't want this type of unsolicited advice from a subordinate. This advice should come from their superiors or HR. Just stick to the part about how it the absence impacts your work. That's it.

  8. Anonymous*

    Ugh, I know how the OP feels, but I’m sorry to say that I’m glad I’m not the only to have to deal with a coworker who is completely unreliable.

    I must reiterate other comments – Why can’t people work when they say they can work and/or deal with the hours they are scheduled? For crying out loud, the economy sucks, and they have a job! They are apparently lucky they are working for bosses who don’t want to stand up to them and let them walk over everyone.

    Sorry to be so emotional, but this is what I have been dealing with for quite some time now.

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