Who they are: How to Handle An Employee Who is Always Sick - We all have sick days now and then; we even all have days when we just can’t face going into work. Yes, even us bosses too. However, there’s a very big difference between thinking about throwing a sickie and actually doing it. The absentee worker will take more sick days than would seem reasonably normal; they may seem to lurch from one supposed health or personal crisis to another.
So, if you have a repeat absentee offender, how can you handle it?
What to do if an employee is always sick:
The first thing you need to do is to assess the reason behind the absence. Is the employee genuinely ill, for instance? A doctor’s note should tell you that. If the employee takes a lot of odd days off here and there – for which they can self-certificate and don’t need a doctor’s note – that should raise a red flag.
Legally in the UK, you can’t ask for medical evidence or a fit note (Statement of Fitness to Work) – the new sick note – until someone has been away from work for more than seven days. However, the seven days do include weekends and bank holidays and any other days the employee usually does not work. If your company does not have a formal sickness procedure as yet, it is good practice to ask for the fit note after this time as standard.
For all other sick days of seven days or less, make a point of asking people to self-certificate. This is when they have to fill in and sign an official form giving information about their illness, along with the dates the sickness started and ended. This has the bonus of bringing home to the worker that their sick days are being monitored.
Likewise, make sure that each employee knows what action is expected of them if they are ill or want to claim a sick day. It is advisable to tell them that they must telephone in person to speak to their line manager direct (no, their mother/ wife/ husband/ flatmate or next door neighbour cannot do it for them unless they are very ill and in hospital); they should not leave a message, nor should they email.
They should also call as soon as they are able and telephone each and every morning that they are sick. They should not call once and then be off for three days. If nothing else, the demand that people call in each morning not only allows the manager to know how to use their cover effectively, but it also helps to dissuade those who are not genuine from going through with throwing a sickie in the first place. You can even carry out a return to work interview after sickness to further discourage people from taking advantage.
Here’s a tricky situation: what do you do if an employee asked for and was refused a certain day off, but coincidentally takes it ‘off sick’ anyway? You strongly suspect that there was nothing actually wrong with them but, of course, you can’t prove it. It’s a tough one. Lying about being sick is a definite disciplinary matter, but that only works if you can prove the employee lied (for example, if they were seen out at a bar instead). If you strongly suspect that he or she lied, however, and particularly if they have a history of it, you should investigate further.
Question the employee when he or she originally calls in sick and conduct a return to work interview when they return. Ask the employee for an explanation. If they have done this before, point out the pattern and again ask for their explanation. In many cases, this interview may be enough to prevent any future occurrence once they know you are watching them. If you have a reasonable belief that the absence was not genuine as a result of their response, you are entitled to start disciplinary action, whether you want to start by giving a verbal or written warning.
In order to avoid an unfair dismissal claim, however, you must be sure to carry out a proper investigation first and not just jump to conclusions. Remember the burden of proof at all times; you want to have enough information to convince a court that you were disciplining in good faith should you need to. If there is an underlying health issue or potential disability discrimination issues, this is doubly important.
Once your company has an attendance policy in place that every employee is aware of, you can confront regular offenders using an objective system of monitoring and measuring.
Of course, while having an absenteeism policy is important, it may not be tackling the crux of the problem. By far the biggest reason for absenteeism without a legitimate medical complaint is demotivation and stress; re-read the motivation section again for advice on how to inspire and motivate your staff. Even your management style could be an influence when it comes to absenteeism; autocratic and authoritarian managers tend to encourage higher levels of sickness than their more democratic counterparts.
Otherwise, treat all sickness in a sympathetic manner. Don’t automatically assume employees are swinging the lead; a great many sick days will be legitimate.
But here’s a dilemma for you: what do you do if the person is genuinely ill but has such a lot of sick time that you and your department are struggling to cope? It’s a moral as well as a business decision, but should you – and could you – let them go?
Legally there is no requirement for the company to rehabilitate a sick worker; however, you need to know your law on this one because you may have legal responsibilities and limitations under the Disability Discrimination Act, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, the Employment Rights Act 1966 and the Employment Act 2002 (Dispute Regulations) 2004. It’s probably best to consult HR, I think.
In the meantime, let’s look at a typical conversation with a repeat absentee offender who you suspect isn’t really ill as often as they claim. In this scenario, the employee has rung the manager to let them know they will be off ill for a few days. How should the manager respond?
Manager: Hello, I’m sorry to hear you’re not feeling well. Thank you for calling in. A few days illness sounds serious: do you think you doctor might be able to help?
We’ll miss you while you’re away. Is there anything we should know about your work in your absence? What do we need to address while you’re away?
I’d like you to call me tomorrow and talk with me personally so I can see how you’re feeling and we can discuss how to provide the best support for you to help you return to work as early as possible. It’s important that we talk directly about how you are, so let’s chat tomorrow.