How to Handle Last-Minute Sick Calls by Employees

A few employee absences each year (especially during cold and flu season) are understandable, but a few people always seem to push the envelope. In a survey this year by CareerBuilder, 38 percent of respondents admitted to calling in sick when not, up from 28 percent in 2014. Some bizarre excuses? “I broke my arm reaching to grab a falling sandwich,” and “I poked myself in the eye while combing my hair.”

Those employee call-ins were likely not amusing to the business owners. Even accounting for sick leave, employee absences generate heavier workloads for those present and on average cost businesses 35 percent of annual payroll, says Mercer LLC research.

Is this a major hassle in your workplace? Here are ways to stop the madness.

  • Even if problematic employees are legitimately sick, it’s worth it to protect your interests with frank discussions and an explicit company policy. Alison Green from puts it straight: “Going forward, we need you to be here reliably, every day, except in the most extreme of circumstances. If you’re not able to do that, I understand, but the job does require it.”
  • Combine sick, vacation and personal days for employees into one “Paid Time Off” or PTO category. “Sick-day abusers may think twice before calling in because the absences cut into what could be their vacation,” explains Nate Hindman on the Hartford Financial Services Group website.
  • Disallowing voice mail messages might dissuade those not wanting to fake sickness with their supervisor. But sick workers just trying to sleep off their ailments might resent that, warns Green.
  • Workers may be less likely to abuse call outs when more in control of their own workday. That correlated positively with worker satisfaction in a 2008 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology
  • Organizations that let employees work from home saw a 63 percent reduction in unscheduled absences in American Management Association research. Teleworkers can often work at home while sick, and return to work more quickly following doctor’s appointments or surgery.
  • Be aware of the law, Hindman advised.  The worker might need a schedule accommodation based on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

Note: We’re proud of what we’ve built with Buddy Punch – which has become a leading employee management tool for business owners looking to automatically calculate time spent on and off the clock. If you’re interested in Buddy Punch’s time tracking and PTO managing options, click here to learn more.

What if You Suspect an Employee is Lying About Being Sick?

Trust is a big requirement for a functional working relationship – so if you’re suspicious of your employee’s intentions, the first step might be to distance yourself and make sure you have sound reasoning. Is this a difficult employee who has a habit of abusing your employee attendance policy, or is this a one-time, last-minute callout? Is it an employee that has run out of vacation time suddenly having a lot of “health conditions?” How dependable are they when compared to their coworkers? Have the repeated no-shows started having an impact on your work environment?

The pandemic changed the sickness template. Now there are real concerns to be raised when an employee calls out sick, and how them powering through a supposed sickness, if real, would impact the rest of the workplace. Now you have to think twice once an employee sends a text in or leaves a voicemail that they won’t be showing up.

Once you’ve determined that you’re willing to pursue questioning the employee, at the risk of your employee-employer relationship (in the interest of protecting your bottom line and workplace integrity), here are a few steps you can take to get to the bottom of the employee’s absenteeism:

1.  Request a Doctor’s Note

Asking for doctor’s notes is customary for most sick day policies, and for good reason. This is a classic and subtle step to verify the truth of an employee using sick time, and a refusal from them to do so could further justify any suspicions you harbor.

This is namely because there’s plenty of legitimate reasons for a sick employee to visit a doctor, as it would be an important step in addressing any of their health issues. Don’t get discouraged by last minute sick calls— a proper diagnosis and treatment plan would benefit the employee, and would lead to less time off work overall, so it should, in theory, be a win-win. Requiring a doctor’s note for more serious issues should be in your company’s sick leave policy to combat absenteeism.

2.  Perform a Check In

If your employee has let you know they plan to rest for a mental health day, a quick phone call could be the difference between them getting away with stealing time from the company, or them quickly being caught out and about. However, they could always refrain from answering and send a text messaging claiming to have been asleep, resting, or otherwise distracted from your call in order to avoid disciplinary action.

It’s also possible you could learn the truth of the matter from their social media. 43% of employers caught an employee abusing paid sick leave thanks to their social media posts (a number that had increased from 34% in 2016).

Even an employee devious enough to lie about being sick isn’t necessarily committed enough to go all the way. Even a small business owner can take a few quick minutes to check new employee posts on social media and discover the truth of the matter.

3.  Talk to Them

Communication is critical. It’s possible that something in your employee’s personal life became overwhelming or harmful to their well-being, so they decided to take a vacation day off for their mental health and/or to address the issue. In these scenarios, personal embarrassment could prevent them from being more forthcoming with the details.

Consider increasing their trust in your human resources department so they can be more truthful in the future. You could also remind them that the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides protections that enables them to take sick days, albeit unpaid, for reasons relating to a family member or medical issues.

It’s also possible that what’s missing is some incentives for the employee to show up to work. Are they feeling burnout, perhaps thinking their hard work goes unappreciated? Would an opportunity to do remote work help boost their productivity? It’s worth fostering an environment that will allow for a fully honest conversation.

4.  Hire a Private Investigator

This is more of a last resort, but it becomes critical if you have a full-time employee committing repeated abuses of sick leave or full on FMLA fraud. In those situations, you’ll have to gather enough evidence to prove your case, which requires the aid of a private investigator to collect any incriminating evidence and while ensuring sure you’re operating in accordance with the law.

Missing work on its own isn’t a crime, and employees should never be made to feel as such. At most, your employee handbook should outline what sort of steps you take against this (and they should start off relatively simple and grow more severe as absences increase).

However, when one employee begins to take advantage of the system in place to support your team members, it becomes vital for you to address the abuse before it negatively impacts production and work ethic across your business.

Note: If your primary concern is being able to keep track of employee time work as well as PTO, you can’t go wrong with using Buddy Punch. We built our software to help simplify tracking your entire team’s attendance – which makes it perfect for monitoring sick days. Over 10,000 business owners have found Buddy Punch satisfied their employee management needs. Learn more here.

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