Why Does that Employee Abuse Sick Leave?

While employee absenteeism may be costing you a pretty penny, it doesn’t have to, you just need to do some homework and maybe tweak the way in which you manage the sick leave policy for your organization.

Often, the manner in which a sick leave policy is written, administered and enforced by a company is the key to helping employees better manage their time away from work. Let’s face it, we recognize that from time to time, employees may need time off to address their medical needs. However, your policy must clearly state what the sick leave can be used for and stipulate whether or not the employee can use “their” sick leave to care for someone else; and you should be aware of what the “leave”  laws are in the state in which you run your business. For instance, in California, sick leave may be used for a parent, spouse, child or registered domestic partner.

To counter the administration of sick leave, vacation and personal time off, many companies have opted for Paid Time Off (PTO) policies, which give employees options for how they use their time. PTO provides full and part time employees with paid time away from work that can be used for vacation, personal time, personal illness or time off to care for dependents. In the administration of a PTO policy, the employer requests that PTO be scheduled in advance and have supervisory approval, except in the case of personal illness or an emergency. The PTO policy would take the place of sick leave, personal time and vacation time. Once all of the time is used up, it’s gone until the next year, so it encourages employees to use their time wisely. However, not every company has jumped on the PTO bandwagon, so what should they do when administering sick leave policies?

Make sure the Sick Leave Policy language is clear, and that employees understand it. As part of the new employee orientation process, the sick leave policy should be reviewed ensuring that new employees understand eligibility requirements and how time is accrued. Here is an example of potential sick leave policy language:

XYZ company recognizes that employees need days off from work from time to time to address their medical needs or the medical needs of a family member.

For this purpose, regular full-time employees will accrue sick leave at a rate of one day per month. Part time employees will accrue one-day of sick leave every two months. Sick leave may be used for the care of a sick child, spouse or parent.

The company reserves the right to require employees to provide a note from the doctor verifying that an absence was caused by a medical situation.

Managers and supervisors need to be clear on how to properly administer the sick leave policy, this where a Human Resources person or department can help by providing guidance on sick leave administration. Often, the sick leave policy is abused because the manager or supervisor doesn’t know how to manage it effectively. HR can be very  instrumental in helping new managers and supervisors by providing training on sick leave administration so that the policy is not abused. So what does constitute sick leave abuse?

Anytime an employee develops a pattern of behavior around sick leave, it may be considered abuse. For example, Sally calls in sick the Friday before or the Monday after a weekend or holiday at least once a month. On the other hand, Sally may request a vacation day and it is denied, she then calls in sick for the day that she requested off.  We have experienced  situations where the time off is subtle where once every two months an employee may call out before or after a holiday or weekend (however it’s the same time every year) to blatant situations where an employee calls out sick once a week. The key here is to watch for the pattern and:

  • Have a discussion with the employee about the pattern – you may discover here that the employee may not be aware of the pattern that they have developed over time or something more serious is happening in their lives that you can help them with so that they don’t exhaust all of their time.
  • Document the conversation in an employee shadow file. We have seen many a situation where a request to terminate an employee goes awry because there is no supporting evidence of the abuse nor were the conversations documented. Document the conversations so that if disciplinary action or termination is required, there is supporting evidence of the conversation with the employee and when the conversations took place.
  • Determine if it is truly a pattern or if there is something more serious going on – often an employee may be ill and require frequent doctor’s visits to address the illness or they may be taking care of a sick loved one, in which case, they may be eligible for FMLA. On the other hand, something even more serious may be going on like domestic abuse. The point here is to do the work to investigate what’s going on before you move to discipline and/or terminate.
  • Determine additional underlying causes for the habitual absenteeism. Employee disengagement often leads to employee absenteeism. If you are not considering employee job satisfaction, now is the time to do so. Often employees take time off for deeper reasons that lay within your organization. An employee satisfaction survey that focuses on overall company, strategy, mission, vision, leadership, policy, employee development, compensation and roles and responsibilities will help you uncover potholes within your company that lead to employee dis-engagement which subsequently lead to sick leave abuse.
  • Cross-train employees to ensure that you have coverage in times when an employee may call out.  Cross-training can also be an opportunity for others to learn something new and be considered for other employment opportunities within your company. This is an investment in your company as you enhance the skills of your employees.
  • Make sure that your procedures are documented! If your procedures are documented thoroughly, any employee should be able to pick them up and be able to do the work.

Make sure that employees at every level are aware of and adhere to the sick leave policy for your company and that the managers and supervisors who administer it are aware of how to do so but also lead by example. In our experience in HR, we have discovered that often the managers and supervisors develop patterns of sick leave abuse and the staff follows the behavior.

Keep the dialog open with your employees and you can avoid costly absenteeism issues. Most importantly however, check your sick leave policies to ensure that they still work for your organization, change them if necessary but ensure that employees at every level are educated about them!


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