Abuse sick time and lose it

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Oct 01, 2007

What can I do to get my employees to stop abusing sick days and show up to work on time?


Jan Miller
Most managers dance around this issue or avoid it altogether, rationalizing that they can't expect people not to get ill, says Jan Miller, senior consultant at Veterinary Best Practice in Hillsboro, Ore. If they do confront the problem, the employee often comes back with, "But I can't help it if I get sick!"

"Then the tears start," Miller says. "That's enough to cause most managers to back off."

The same holds true for chronic tardiness, she says. There's always going to be a reason—or an excuse—for it. But the issue isn't about missing work; it's about attending work. Therefore a change in terminology may be the best way to address this problem behavior.

If you use the phrase "excessive absenteeism" when talking to an employee, you're implying that there's an acceptable level of absenteeism, Miller says. But, really, you don't want any absences. So you need to emphasize attendance instead. Here are Miller's three tips for making chronic absenteeism and tardiness a thing of the past:

1. Change your focus. During staff meetings, discuss the importance of regular attendance and punctuality. Emphasize what you want: everybody at work, on time, all the time. Discussing the importance of regular attendance is less confrontational than talking about absenteeism.

2. Eliminate sick leave. Introduce a policy of paid time off (PTO) instead. PTO combines vacation and sick time into one category. Why does it work?

  • It changes the focus from illness to wellness and from unscheduled time off to scheduled time off. Scheduled time off is easier to manage.
  • The reason for time off doesn't matter because it all comes out of the same bucket—no more excuses.
  • It rewards employees who manage their unscheduled time off with the possibility of more vacation time. For those employees who have historically used sick time as a source of extra spontaneous vacation, this policy appropriately depletes their available vacation accrual.

3. Change your employee manual. Instead of including an "absenteeism policy," craft an "attendance policy" like the following:

Because of the critical nature of veterinary medicine, it's mandatory that every employee maintain regular attendance. Our attendance expectations are simple and clear: Every employee is expected to be at work and on time every day he or she is scheduled to work. Employees should take the steps necessary to maintain good health and should manage personal business outside of their scheduled work times.