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Calling in sick: What to do when employees lie

Poor Gloria. She had a horrible case of the flu and spent Friday and Monday in bed – or so she said when she called in sick. But not according to her co-worker John, who says he saw pictures on Facebook of Gloria with a group of women on Friday celebrating and preparing for a friend’s wedding.

What is an employer to do?

First, answer the question: Why should we care?

You have to address the issue. By ignoring it you are condoning the behavior.

The fact is, your organization may not depend upon one employee’s day-to-day attendance. For example, the IT department can probably still operate if Gloria calls in sick. But if Gloria works on a manufacturing line and her co-worker can’t leave until she clocks in, then her absence impacts productivity and team morale immediately.

Of course, this assumes that Gloria’s absenteeism is not a larger pattern of behavior. The most important thing is to not jump to conclusions. Gather the facts – not rumors or sneaking suspicions.

Start with your timekeeping records

Your time management report can show patterns of absenteeism or poor attendance. Does Gloria tend to take sick time on Fridays, Mondays or days surrounding holidays?

If this is a pattern of behavior, it definitely needs to be addressed. But, even if it is a one-time occurrence, you still need to talk to the employee.

What does your absenteeism policy say?

Has Gloria followed notification procedures? Well-written policies will require employees to call their supervisor by a certain time of day. The employee-calling-in sick policy should be clear about with whom, when and how to make contact. Is a text or email acceptable? Or does it have to be a phone call and direct conversation with the supervisor? How many days can you call in sick?

This policy can also include when or if a doctor’s note is required. Many companies use the three-day guideline for sick days, but be sure you don’t run afoul of any mandatory sick leave law that your company may be subject to. We’ll discuss more about that below.

A general PTO policy that encompasses both sick time and vacation time rewards employees who don’t have frequent illnesses and discourages people from taking sick days off when they’re not sick.

Check your leave policies

Has Gloria exhausted all of her allotted vacation time? Is she looking for a way to attend her friend’s bachelorette party? Companies with time-off policies that separate sick time from vacation time may encourage the use of paid sick time when employees aren’t sick. There may be a perception that they are “due” those days. If the policy allows 10 days, some employees may expect to get 10 days, no matter what.

On the other hand, a general PTO policy that encompasses both sick time and vacation time rewards employees who don’t have frequent illnesses and discourages people from taking sick days off when they’re not sick.

Don’t forget state and local laws

As more cities and states enact their own sick-leave laws, it’s harder than ever to keep up with all the requirements governing paid sick time, particularly if your company operates in multiple jurisdictions.

For instance, California, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and several other cities and counties have sick-leave laws that require companies to provide a certain number of hours of paid sick leave each year.

Some states, such as California, allow employees to use half of their paid sick leave to care for a spouse, domestic partner, child or child of a domestic partner. Other states, like New Jersey, require employers to let sick time be used for reasons related to school events and/or conferences.

Certain city laws also have specific coverage. Emeryville, California, requires that mandatory sick time be available to care for your service dog, and Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, both require that the time be available for use due to inclement weather.

As more cities and states enact their own sick leave laws, it’s harder than ever to keep up with all the requirements.

A majority of these laws also set parameters around when a note can be requested, and some prohibit employers from penalizing workers by “counting” absences covered under the sick law against an employee’s attendance. These requirements go beyond what the federal FMLA provides.

Complicating matters, these sick-leave requirements may run counter to a company’s PTO policy that lumps all types of leave together. For instance, Santa Monica, California, requires employers to have a standalone sick-time policy, specifically precluding PTO or other combination-type plans from meeting the law requirements.

Take a look at the employee’s history

Has the person been dishonest in other areas? Does the employee have other performance problems? Or is this the first time you’ve had to reprimand them? How you handle it will depend on both your company’s discipline policy and its leave policies.

Social media: Proceed with caution

It’s one thing if Gloria’s bachelorette party is so wild it makes the front page of the newspaper. In that case, the information is public, and you can use the news story during your chat. However, social media remains a murky area of employee privacy.

If Gloria’s Facebook settings are open and everyone can see her pictures from the bachelorette party, it’s probably OK to print the pictures for use during your talk. However, you should proceed with caution if you can’t personally access her page. You should not ask another employee with access to her social media accounts to print pictures for you or otherwise verify what’s on Gloria’s accounts.

Review your company’s progressive discipline policy

This outlines how your organization handles these situations, such as poor employee attendance and the progression of discipline. A typical course of action starts with a verbal warning, moving on to a written warning, possibly to suspension and then termination. This should be part of your company handbook and is meant to give guidelines and help you be consistent.

The most important thing is to not jump to conclusions. Gather the facts – not rumors or sneaking suspicions.

Accepted reasons for calling in sick

As you’re considering how to respond when an employee calls in sick, think about how crummy it feels to be ill. While you don’t want team members faking health issues to skip work, you do want them to notify you when they’re ill. Remember the COVID-19 pandemic? Workers who called in sick prevented spreading the disease further — as they should have. There will always be times when people can’t come into the office for legitimate reasons. Be understanding. Respect sick-day decisions as long as they align with your company policy.

Can remote workers call in sick?

The prevalence of remote work introduces a new complication into sick-day policies. Should people working from home get sick days, or should they keep working virtually while nursing symptoms? The answer depends on various factors. How sick is the person and how demanding is the work? Some people may be able to manage their regular tasks even while being ill; others may not be able to focus or complete any tasks, in which case they’d do better to call in sick.

It’s time for a chat

Part of gathering facts includes talking to the employee. You have to address the issue. By ignoring it, you are condoning the behavior. It also can impact team morale, work performance and productivity.

Other workers may see it as affecting how much work they have to absorb when someone is out, or they see the employee as getting away with not following company policy. Habitual absences may cause a company to fall below its production or performance goals. Share how an absence affects these pieces of the business.

Let the employee know you’ve noticed the absences. This is an opportunity to set attendance expectations. But it also gives you a chance to ask questions.

“Is there anything I need to know about? Anything you need from me?” You can ask if they expect this to be an ongoing issue.

Maybe you’re not aware of an underlying chronic health condition. Maybe the employee needs a schedule adjustment or accommodation based on the Americans with Disabilities Act. Don’t assume you know all the facts until you have talked with the employee.

In Gloria’s case, it might be awkward, but the conversation has to happen. Your opening line might be: “I want you to know that someone saw pictures on Facebook of you out with friends on Friday. You called in sick. What can you tell me about this?”

Explain the impact on the rest of the team: “Not being here affects the team in these ways …”

If this is a one-time issue, it may end with a verbal counseling session and the manager making note of the discussion. If it’s an ongoing issue, it may advance to a written warning. The key is to have a progressive discipline policy in place and be consistent.

What employees should do after calling in sick

When someone calls in sick, be prepared to inform them of what to do next. Here are some standard procedures and best practices you can recommend to anyone who will be out of office, especially if the time away will be longer than a day:

  • Contact colleagues: Particularly if an employee takes part in any team meetings, projects or deadlines, an absence will affect others. Tell the worker to notify colleagues affected by the sick day as soon as possible.
  • Plan ahead for return: Likewise, a person on sick leave should make plans for returning to regular responsibilities. This may mean handing off certain projects, adjusting a client’s expectations, handling a few tasks from home and so on.    
  • Set up out-of-office messaging: To ensure no one must wonder where the employee is on a sick day, have the worker set up an automatic out-of-office email response and/or voicemail message. This way, anyone who reaches out will be in the loop.