Addressing management issues

Oct. 1, 2010

Sick-leave use or abuse?

Q Several employees have complained to me about another employee because they believe she uses sick leave when she is, in fact, not sick. This employee does seem to use up her sick leave as soon as she earns it; she often calls in saying she or her child is sick. In the past, I had no reason to believe that she was being dishonest, but recently I learned that the “sick” employee has postings on a social-network website that indicate that she was not really sick the last time she called in sick. This has made her co-workers resentful — and probably even more so if they think I am ignoring the problem. How do I address this issue?

A This employee might have legitimate reasons for her absences or she might not, either way her absences cause problems. You are correct that frequently absent employees can lead to problems with co-workers who have to cover the the absent employee’s job responsibilities in addition to their own. Knowing that a person is abusing sick leave and that no supervisory action is being taken will certainly diminish employee morale — this is why you need to act.

Schedule a meeting with this employee to discuss the reason(s) for her absences. During this meeting, explain to her how her absences — legitimate or not — affect her co-workers and the entire department, as work must be reassigned or on-call employees have to be brought in (which also affects the department’s budget).

You may learn that the employee has legitimate reasons for calling in sick; or you may feel the situation is beyond your capabilities and that you need to refer the matter to the human resources (HR) department. But, in any case, make sure the employee is aware of the problems created by her absences. Before the meeting is over, come up with a plan together to solve the problem. Make it known that you rely on all your employees to work as scheduled; and if you cannot rely on her, further disciplinary actions will be required. Make a note of this meeting in her personnel file, so if an HR representative needs to get involved, he is aware of what has transpired thus far.

In my experience, once you make the employee aware of the value of her services (i.e., how much she is appreciated by you and her co-workers) her absences will become less frequent.

—Linda Lawson
Lawson Management
Dallas, TX

A Spend two minutes on Twitter or Facebook, and you will notice that it is not uncommon for some employees to treat sick leave as an extra allotment of vacation days. But you certainly cannot police every employee’s Twitter feed or Facebook update just as, in the past, you could not monitor their movements to make sure they were home in their sick beds. Whether you found out about this employee’s possible abuse of sick leave while you were online or in line at the grocery store, you need to have a face-to-face conversation with her as soon as possible.

If her use of sick days has gotten to the point where her co-workers believe she is getting away with taking time off for reasons other than illness, you may soon end up with more of your staff taking advantage of sick days to recharge their batteries — leaving the lab understaffed and other employees seriously stressed.

Set up a meeting with her and explain that you are concerned about her recent absences and need to discuss the issues you and the rest of the staff face when she is out sick. Inform her that her unscheduled absences create a staffing problem, and her co-workers feel the burden. Explain that her particular skills are valuable to your organization; and when she is absent, finding a replacement is difficult.

Together, develop a plan of action with a timetable where she will make specific changes to meet your requirements as her supervisor. Keep a signed and dated agenda of this meeting and the plan discussed. Be sure this employee is aware of your facility’s sick-leave policies, as well as any employee-assistance program available, should she feel the need to get help with problems.

The goal is to give this employee an opportunity to make changes before more drastic steps are taken. Often, a signed agreement between the employee and the supervisor is a useful tool, as it gives the employee a chance to correct her behavior, and it also documents the supervisor’s efforts to solve the problem. Of course, you may have to refer this issue to HR for further disciplinary action and potential termination depending on your facility’s policies.

—MJ Matthews
Garner and Associates
Seattle, WA

Bottom line: First, get a good handle on your sick leave policy. If you have an HR department, utilize its resources to help deal with the matter. If appropriate, meet with the individual and listen to her side, then explain to her the internal consequences of her absences, whether legitimate or not. Dealing with this situation is important, or you will lose credibility with staff. This situation also opens a can of worms among staff, as she may now resent others for ratting her out. You will need to address this issue as well.

C. Anne Pontius is a senior medical practice consultant with
State Volunteer Mutual Insurance Co. in Brentwood, TN, and president of CLMA. Send questions to Ms. Pontius at [email protected].