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The do’s and don’ts of handling employee absences


If you hire people, you’re going to have to deal with employee absences on a regular basis. There is a wide range of reasons for employees being out of office, including:

After all, life happens.

States and municipalities have differing laws on what your business is legally required to do – or cannot do – in dealing with employee absences. For example, some states have laws requiring dedicated paid sick leave or may permit the lumping of all time off together into one paid time off (PTO) bank. Other states may have laws that require paid family and medical leave. 

For every location where your business operates, you should know the relevant federal, state and local laws to which you’re subjected so your business remains in compliance.

With this in mind, here we’ll cover general, safe best practices that any employer should adopt when handling employee absences to act fairly toward everyone and maintain morale – while preventing difficult behavior from employees and keeping the organization running smoothly.

When it comes to employee absences …

DON’T: Wing it

Simply dealing with employees on an individual basis or having vague, high-level ideas of how you propose to handle absences is asking for trouble. In this scenario, you’re at risk of:

  • Confused, frustrated employees who don’t understand what they can and can’t do
  • Inconsistency in your treatment of employees
  • Employee accusations of unfairness or discrimination
  • Misunderstandings leading to adversarial manager-employee relationships
  • A dysfunctional workplace
  • Legal problems

DO: Rely on written policies

Even if your team is as small as a few people, or you consider your workplace to be more relaxed and casual, you must establish written policies that clearly explain everything employees need to know surrounding absences. The most informal and flexible of workplaces still has to have basic ground rules and a guide that lays out what your workplace believes and accepts.

Have these policies in your employee handbook:

  • A policy outlining the types of leave to which your employees are entitled, as well as the eligibility, requirements and other parameters associated with each type of leave
  • A policy on employee absenteeism (also known as a time and attendance policy), including how to notify managers of an absence and how much notice is required

Doing this ensures:

  • Universal awareness and acceptance of rules about absences
  • Clarity of expectations and requirements
  • Fairness and transparency from employers
  • Professionalism in the workplace
  • Consistency in application
  • Accountability from employees
  • Protection from legal action

DON’T: Cling to the pre-pandemic workplace

In the past, the majority of people were in person, at the office from 8 a.m.-5 p.m., with a more structured one-hour lunch break that was likely a little more closely monitored by their manager.

For a huge number of workers and companies, those days are gone.

The widespread adoption of remote work blended peoples’ professional and personal lives and proved that employees can enjoy a better work-life balance while fulfilling their work responsibilities.

Employees have become accustomed to running an errand, taking a walk to decompress or attending to children during the workday. It doesn’t mean they’re working less – in many cases, remote workers clock in longer hours overall to overcompensate for perceptions that they’re not working as much. Employees aren’t “absent” in these scenarios; they just don’t feel as stuck to a traditional eight-to-five schedule.

And, the fact is, managers can’t police their employees’ every move from a distance.

Many employees now believe that, as long as their work gets done on time and meets quality standards, they should be able to take care of personal needs as required.

Companies that resist employees’ shifting expectations for flexibility can suffer the consequences of low morale and loss of valuable talent.

DO: Embrace flexibility – within reason

Allowing for more flexibility in employees’ days doesn’t mean trashing your workplace policies on employee absences and permitting a free-for-all. You should still have rules in place about time out of the office and expectations for when employees are available on a day-to-day basis.

Allowing for more flexibility does mean that your company recognizes it’s good for mental health, morale and productivity to promote breaks to deal with personal obligations and well-being, and enable employees to relax and refocus. Employees can bring their whole selves to work when they’re not stressing about something else or feeling burned out.

Mostly, people want to be treated like adults who can manage their time.

Revisit your policies to determine whether anything is outdated or how you can introduce more flexibility to align with current worker expectations, especially as it relates to short-term, one-off absences (for example, those lasting a few hours or less), such as personal appointments, school activities and childcare issues.

Post-pandemic, many companies offer extra PTO days specifically for personal matters.

If your business can’t provide more PTO, you could allocate a certain number of hours of unpaid leave for employees to use as they see fit each week.

However, there’s always the potential for abuse. Be on the lookout for warning signs – an employee who is frequently unavailable without explanation or regularly misses deadlines – and intervene when necessary.

DON’T: Accept silence from employees

As flexibility gains more widespread acceptance in the workplace, good communication is a must. You shouldn’t tolerate employees not informing you when they’ll be out of the office or violating policies without explanation. No workplace can function when its people are unreliable and managers are always wondering where they are and what they’re doing.

DO: Foster a workplace culture where people communicate openly and trust each other

Ultimately, the success of increased flexibility comes down to regular, two-way communication between managers and their team members, creating an environment of trust and respect.

Encourage employees to talk to their managers proactively about what’s going on in their personal lives, or challenges that they’re dealing with that could lead to absences or tardiness. Issues can almost always be accommodated or resolved to the satisfaction of both parties with good communication.

Likewise, if a manager has concerns, they should address those with employees as soon as possible to avoid misunderstandings or minor issues escalating into major problems.

DON’T: Rush to discipline employees

The other extreme of accepting silence is rushing to discipline employees for excessive or unapproved absences without first obtaining all the relevant information. In a moment of frustration, it can be tempting to immediately write an employee up.

Not only could you cause an employee’s morale to plummet, but your organization could find itself in violation of federal or state law if an employee’s absences relate to protected medical issues.

DO: Watch out for patterns, and hold employees accountable when necessary

You should talk to employees in an empathetic manner about any unapproved absences, particularly those that caused a disruption to the business. That’s part of practicing good communication and not letting issues get out of hand.

Be slow to execute major disciplinary actions for one-off incidents. Especially for employees where it’s out of character, that response can create resentment and break trust. Instead, pay attention to larger patterns over time. For example:

  • Does an employee always call in sick on Fridays or around holidays?
  • Is tardiness becoming a daily occurrence?
  • Does an employee regularly disappear for hours on end without explanation?

Document these issues and call a meeting with the employee to find out what’s going on. Listen and seek to understand before you react.

It’s possible that the employee has a valid excuse. A solution may be easy to implement, such as a change in their hours worked. Maybe it’s a general misunderstanding of your time and attendance policy.

It’s also possible that they have a medical reason, which necessitates an interactive discussion under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to reach a reasonable workplace accommodation for their situation. It may even be appropriate to place them on extended leave per the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Again, this all gets back to communicating openly and regularly.

However, if the absences are excessive, without sufficient reason and constitute a flagrant disregard of workplace policies, then you are justified to initiate your company’s progressive disciplinary process. This can start with a verbal warning and advance to written warnings and termination.

DON’T: Ignore – or reward – employees who never take time off

Maybe you have employees who have unused vacation days each year or employees who rarely if ever take time off at all.

You may shrug and think, “Oh well. It’s their business. If they want to work all the time, I guess that’s to the company’s benefit.”

Actually, it’s very important for employees to take time off to rest and recharge. By not intervening at all, you could passively contribute to employee burnout. Never taking time off to unplug does not benefit anyone in the long term.

Even worse, your employees may even assume that, if they don’t hear from you, you don’t really care.

Furthermore, avoid rewarding employees who don’t use their PTO benefit. That could send the message that your workplace doesn’t value personal time or well-being.

DO: Find ways to encourage employees to take time off and counteract burnout

There are a few easy ways you can let employees know that you value their well-being and want them to take time off. After all, you provide the benefit of PTO for a reason.

  1. Simply encourage them! Some employees need to hear this message from you and obtain your “permission” to use PTO. By having a conversation about PTO, you may uncover some workplace problems that need to be addressed. For example, do employees fear that they’ll miss out on an opportunity or be undermined in some way if they’re gone? Do they dread receiving an onslaught of emails and texts while on vacation? Getting to the root cause of an issue and tuning into their concerns can be a beneficial exercise for both managers and employees.
  2. Lead by example. The behaviors you want to see in employees must be modeled at the top of the organization.
    • Do your managers take time off?
    • Do they vocalize what they enjoy about their time away?
    • Do they protect their personal time?
    • Do they work long hours and while on vacation, sending the wrong message?
  3. Remind employees it’s not all or nothing. They then don’t have to take an entire week off at once if they find that overwhelming and don’t know what to do with that time. Share options to take single days in the middle of the week or on Mondays or Fridays to extend a weekend. Half days work, too!
  4. Consider a mandatory PTO program.
  5. Implement a company closure policy. Depending on your industry and business, schedule weeklong company shutdowns when business is slow or around major holidays so employees can recuperate. If you do this, implement a company closure policy explaining rules and eligibility.

DON’T: Get caught off guard by scenarios that are likely to happen

Remember: You’re dealing with people. Inevitably, there will be points of conflict.

If you don’t think through how to handle employee absence issues in advance, you’ll face unpleasant surprises and the potential for bigger problems.

DO: Prepare for the common “what ifs”

What if employees ask for time off during crucial business moments?

Clearly communicate in advance if you anticipate a busy season. State the duration of this time period, and let employees know that you will restrict – or prohibit – PTO during this time. If a specific busy period is a recurring event each year, this should also be in writing within your leave policies.

However, you can’t prevent people from getting sick. Following a pandemic, it’s not a good look to force sick people to come to work either. In these instances, follow your policy on using sick time. For example, after an absence lasting three or more days, a good practice is to request a “release to work” form from a treating physician, as applicable under state or federal law.

That information should also be clearly outlined in your time and attendance policy. If you notice a pattern of behavior in which the same employee always calls in sick during critical business periods, or someone calls in sick after denial of a PTO request, address it with that employee.

What if all your employees want to take vacation at once?

You can’t have an empty office with core business functions left uncovered. This is especially problematic during in-demand vacation times such as spring break and summer – or when everyone wants off around major holidays. You may need to address this in your PTO policy, including:

  • Whether there are limits on how many people can be out at once
  • The duration of time in which employees can be out
  • Any processes you may use to determine who gets vacation during these times

What if employees ask for time off they don’t have?

Perhaps an employee has already used up their PTO on a big vacation earlier in the year, or they haven’t accrued enough PTO yet to cover their requested time out of the office. But here they are, asking you for time off.

Before this situation ever happens, carefully evaluate whether an accrual or frontloaded PTO program makes more sense for your business and workforce.

Your PTO policy should address whether you allow employees to run a negative PTO balance. You will have to manage this consistently and, if the employee leaves the company, confirm whether state law permits you to deduct this from final wages.

If you don’t allow negative PTO balances but your employee can take time away without disrupting business operations, consider granting their PTO request. Just make sure they understand that the PTO is unpaid.

Additionally, you can consider offering unlimited PTO to keep things simple. Certainly, this is a coveted benefit for employees. Carefully evaluate the pros and cons of unlimited PTO for your business.

Summing it all up

Beyond adhering to specific and differing laws at the state and local level, there are general best practices that employers should adopt when handling employee absences. These include:

  • Relying on written policies
  • Embracing flexibility in our post-pandemic world
  • Practicing regular, two-way communication and nurturing trust
  • Paying attention to patterns of absences and not rushing to judgement
  • Encouraging employees to take time off to counteract burnout and promote well-being
  • Preparing for common points of conflict

By doing these things, you can maintain employee morale and prevent abuse of your policies and business disruptions. For more information about preventing potential employee conflict, download our free e-book: A practical guide to managing difficult employees.