If an employee is sick, they should take the day off. But when an employee continually calls in sick, it can cause issues with scheduling, coverage, and lost productivity.
But you can’t exactly tell someone not to be sick. So, as a business owner, what do you do when an employee keeps calling in sick?
What Do You Do When an Employee Keeps Calling in Sick?
There are a few key steps you’ll want to take in order to more effectively deal with employees that repeatedly take sick time off, including:
Have a Clear Sick Leave Policy
“Calling in sick too much” is completely subjective. While one team member might think calling in sick twice a year is too much, another might think it’s totally acceptable to call in sick twice a month.
So, if you want to prevent issues with employees taking too many sick days, the best thing you can do? Create a clear sick leave policy.
Your sick leave policy should clearly outline how your company approaches sick leave. This includes:
- Who is eligible for sick leave: Different employees may or may not be eligible for sick leave—for example, full-time employees vs. part-time employees. Make sure to clearly state which employees are—and which employees are not—eligible for sick leave.
- How much sick time employees are eligible for: For employees that are eligible for sick leave, it’s also important to highlight how much sick time they’re eligible for—and how those days are distributed. (For example, do they accrue sick leave throughout the year—or do they get five days at the beginning of each new calendar year?)
- What happens if an employee exhausts their available sick leave: You’ll also want to highlight what happens if an employee has used all of their time off for sickness—but needs to take additional time off for another illness (for example, “once an employee uses all their sick days, they may opt to use their paid time off—including vacation time—to take time off while sick.”)
- What happens when an employee exhausts all their PTO: The same goes for if an employee exhausts all of their paid time off—both sick and vacation—and wants or needs to request additional days (for example, “once an employee uses all of their PTO—including sick and vacation time—they are eligible for three additional days of unpaid leave to cover illnesses or other unexpected circumstances”).
- Any disciplinary action an employee may face if they don’t abide by the company’s attendance policy: If you’re going to discipline employees that violate your attendance policy—up to and including terminating them—you’ll want to clearly outline that disciplinary action in your policy.
Once you’ve created your policy, you’ll want to distribute it to every employee. Have them review and sign it. Then, add it to your employee handbook; that way, every new employee can read and acknowledge the policy as soon as they come on board.
Talk to The Employee
If you notice an employee is starting to call in sick more frequently, as a business owner, the first thing you want to do is talk to them.
Sit down and talk with your employee. Tell them you’ve been noticing that they’ve been absent more frequently than usual. Ask them what’s going on—and if there’s anything you can do to support them.
If an employee is genuinely sick, as an employer, there’s not much you can do. People get sick, and if they’re ill, they should stay home from work and recover. (That last thing you want is for a sick team member to come to work and get all your employees sick!)
But there are a variety of reasons employees may call in sick to work that have nothing to do with an illness—and in those situations, there may be something you can do to help and get your employee’s attendance back on track.
For example, when talking with your employee, you may find out the reason they’re calling in sick so often is that they feel stressed and overwhelmed at work. In that situation, you could brainstorm ways to make work feel less stressful and overwhelming for your employee, like taking some tasks off their plate or allowing them to take more breaks—which could improve the situation and make it easier for them to come to work.
Or maybe an employee tells you that the reason they’ve been calling in sick is that they’re being harassed by one of their coworkers—and they haven’t felt safe coming to work. In that situation, it’s your job as an employer to take swift action to stop the harassment and create a safe environment for them to work in—and once you do, chances are, they won’t regularly call in sick anymore.
The point is, there could be a variety of reasons that your employee is calling in sick more—many of which you may be able to solve with a conversation, some support, and a bit of empathy. So when you find yourself dealing with an employee that’s calling in sick too often, before you do anything else? Just talk to them.
Document the Employee’s Absences
If, after you have a conversation with your employee, they continue to call into work sick on a regular basis, the next step of the process is to start documenting the employee’s absences—as well as the surrounding circumstances.
Every time an employee calls in sick, take note of the circumstances, including:
- The date and day of the week
- When the employee called in
- How the employee called in (for example, did they send a text message, leave a voicemail, or speak to their supervisor?)
- Their reason for missing work
Having this documented will help you spot any trends in the employee’s absences—which may help give you insight into what’s going on. For example, if you have an employee that leaves a voicemail every Thursday night that they’re not going to be able to make it to work on Friday, they might be trying to extend their weekends. Or if you have a weekly company happy hour—and there’s an employee that has called in sick the day after happy hour for five weeks in a row—it might be that they’re overindulging with one too many cocktails and taking the next day to recover.
Documenting your employee’s absences can also be helpful if you have to have a more formal conversation with them about their excessive sick time. (More on that later.)
Ask for Documentation
If you have reason to believe your employee is lying about their sick time, as an employer, you can ask for documentation to support their claims. For example, if an employee calls in for a week straight—and their reason is that they have the flu—you can ask for a doctor’s note. If an employee calls in sick and says they need to have a medical procedure that will keep them out of work for two weeks, you might ask to see proof of their hospitalization.
Now, keep in mind, you should only ask for this if an employee’s absenteeism is a serious problem. People want to feel like they’re trusted; if you require employees to provide a doctor’s note every time they call into work sick, they’re not going to feel like you trust them—and it could lead to issues with employee morale.
Have a Final Conversation with Your Employee
If your employee continues to excessively call in sick, it’s time to have a more formal sit-down to discuss their absences.
Call a meeting with the employee and your human resources team (if you have one). Let them know that their recent absences are in violation of your company’s policy. Show them the record of their absences. Let them know any actions you’ll be taking moving forward (for example, requiring a doctor’s note for all absences). Then, outline all the points you spoke about in a document, have your employee sign it, and put it in their employee file.
Discipline the Employee
If your employee continues to call in sick despite being warned, you may want to take disciplinary action.
Can You Discipline an Employee for Calling in Sick?
As an employer, you have a lot of flexibility in how and when you discipline your employees. And so, can you discipline your staff members for calling in sick? Yes.
If you feel an employee is calling in sick too often, you can absolutely discipline them in line with your company policy on absenteeism—for example, by having human resources give them a written warning, which you keep in their personnel file, or making them ineligible for a performance bonus.
But whether you can take that disciplinary action further—and actually terminate a team member if you feel they’re calling in sick too often? That depends on the specific circumstances.
When Can you NOT Fire an Employee for Being Sick?
There are certain situations where you are legally not allowed to fire an employee for calling in sick, including:
If the Employee is Entitled to Sick Leave
Currently, there is no permanent federal law that mandates employers provide paid sick leave to their employees. But there are many state and local laws that do. And if your business operates in a state or city that requires you to provide sick leave to your employees, you can’t fire them for using that sick leave—however, taking too much unapproved time off after exhausting all sick and vacation leave can be considered a performance issue, which is why having clear leave policies is so critical.
If an Employee is Protected under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
Employees that qualify for protections under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) have a legal right to take up to 12 weeks of leave during any 12-month period for covered reasons—which include caring for an immediate family member with a serious medical condition, taking care of a new child (including adoptions and foster children), and when dealing with a serious health condition. (Health issues may pertain to both physical and mental health.)
If an employee is eligible for FMLA leave—and opts to take it—legally, you can’t fire them for doing so.
If an Employee is Protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
If any of your team members have a disability, they’re covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This requires that employers make reasonable accommodations that allow employees with disabilities to fulfill their job requirements.
This one isn’t as clear cut, but if your employee is calling out sick a lot—and their illness is directly related to their disability? They could make the argument that giving them extra time off to manage their illness is a “reasonable accommodation”—in which case, you wouldn’t be able to fire them.
They’re Dealing with a Work-Related Illness
If an employee comes down with an illness that’s a result of their work environment (for example, they breathed in a toxic substance at work and ended up with a respiratory infection), they’re protected by workers’ compensation laws. Not only can you not fire them for calling in sick too much, but legally, workers’ compensation insurance will also have to pay them their wages and cover any medical expenses they incur as a result of their illness—which means your workers’ comp premiums are sure to increase.
If you want to ensure you’re not over or underpaying for workers’ compensation insurance, Hourly can help. Hourly connects time tracking, payroll, and workers’ compensation in a single platform, calculating workers’ compensation premiums with to-the-penny accuracy, ensuring you don’t pay too much—or too little—for your insurance.
Can I Get Fired for Calling in Sick Too Much?
If you’re an employee, it’s important to understand if and when an employer can fire you for calling in sick too often.
If you’re an at-will employee, your employer can fire you for any reason—and that includes if you’re calling in sick too much (or what they consider to be too much). And because it’s an at-will relationship, they don’t have to give you any reason for why they’re firing you—so they’re not required to tell you if it’s because you called in sick one too many times.
There are exceptions to this. If any of the circumstances listed above apply to your situation (you’re entitled to sick leave; you’re protected under the FMLA or ADA; or the illness you’re dealing with is directly related to work), your boss does not have legal grounds to fire you for calling in sick—even if they think you’re missing work too much.
Respect both the Team Member AND Your Business
As a small business owner, it can be frustrating when an employee continually calls into work sick. The best way to prevent it? Create a thorough sick leave policy and, if the employee keeps missing work, ask them what’s going on and if there’s anything you can do to help. At the end of the day, it benefits both of you to work it out—and your best shot is to start from a place of compassion.
Now that you know what to do if and when an employee starts racking up too many sick days, you can more effectively manage the situation—in a way that respects both the team member and your business.