Sick Leave Abuse: Part 3 – Resolving the Problem

This article deals with a 12-step program for a supervisor to help resolve sick leave issues.

In Parts 1 and 2 of this article, we looked at some of the attitudes underlying sick leave problems, prevention strategies and how to identify when there’s a problem. In this part, I will look at strategies to help resolve the issues.

Before I get into it, I must admit some amazement at the comments to Parts 1 and 2 of this article.

From reading some comments, I am on a high horse believing that one who takes an oath of office should honor it.

Regarding hypocrisy, I admit having sinned. I engaged in water cooler gossip and used government issued pens to sign for personal purchases. As a matter of fact, in Norfolk, Virginia, when I lived and worked there, one couldn’t sign a credit card slip in a restaurant, gas station or (dare I say it) bar without being handed a “Skillcraft” ballpoint.

But I have atoned, at least for the pens. Every Skillcraft I ever used eventually leaked ink on a shirt or suit pocket (thank you GSA for going low bidder). In fairness to some of the comments, I do think much wrongdoing may ultimately be a matter of degree but don’t apologize for believing that a low threshold of tolerance tends to keep the darker side of human nature in check.

OK, back to sick leave.

Preparing Yourself for the Effort

I’m going to advocate a 12 step program to counter sick leave abuse. You should know before attempting any behavioral correction in the Federal government that you will likely face denial, claims of disparate treatment, allegations of discrimination, union grievances, accusations that you are insensitive to someone’s personal, family, or lifestyle choice,or other assertions of unfairness.

During the process of advising managers who faced employee behavioral problems, I usually had a “road” and subsequently a “box” discussion with that person. By the “road”, I mean an estimate of what issues may arise and what the manager should prepare for personally when handling an employee problem. One perhaps shouldn’t get on the “road” unless prepared for the consequences that were frequently predictable and sadly inevitable in many cases. Most problems go away after the first two or three steps. If problems do not go away after the first few steps, it’s generally time for the “box” discussion. Employees who don’t “get it” after informal steps, frequently need written direction governing the unacceptable behaviors they are demonstrating. That written direction, which will take a number of forms as problems escalate in seriousness, put together constitute the “box”.

In the Federal workplaces I have worked (and now consult), managers who address complex problems such as suspected or actual sick leave abuse need to practice patience, persistence and courage. It is also vital to do the right thing by employees regardless of their behavior and to respect their privacy (as appropriate). Also critical is the support of line management above you. If your boss can’t be relied upon to pass the intestinal fortitude test, you may want to rethink gettin’ on the “road”. Nothing is worse than having to live with an employee with problems who knows your boss won’t do anything to support your efforts to solve them.

12 Steps

Each one of the following steps can solve the problem if applied sequentially. From the least conflict-producing to the most, the manager’s job is to remember that you represent the agency, not yourself. Also, keep in mind that the foremost goal is correcting the problem. If the employee has a number of unrelated problems, address each individually with the proper tools.

Never discuss an employee’s problems with a coworker. Don’t discuss the situation with your peers unless one has been assigned to mentor you by higher management. You may discuss the situation with designated human resource advisors, attorneys and managers above you in the chain of command as appropriate. If you are engaged in meetings, prepare an advance meeting plan, share it with your advisor(s) date and initial it and keep it. If someone is drafting documents for you, don’t sign them unless you understand every aspect of that document and accept it as yours. Once you sign it, it is yours.

Step 1. Listen and Document

Once you’ve identified a potential sick leave abuse problem, think through your concerns and prepare a plan for meeting with the employee. The plan often consists of points you want to make in sharing your concerns. Give the employee an opportunity to respond. Keep both the plan and the meeting simple. Advise the employee in advance what the meeting will cover.

Keep that announcement simple too. You can say. “I’m concerned about your sick leave use and want to discuss it with you.” Don’t discuss it then, wait for the meeting. Assume nothing going in. Lay out, according to your plan, the specific behavior you’ve observed and give the employee the chance to say what he or she wants in reply. Keep it very simple and informal. If the employee wants a union steward, claiming to fear discipline, check with your labor relations advisor before you get back to the employee. Once you have heard from the employee, end the meeting. Whatever you do, don’t go forward with a discussion you have not considered and planned for. Once you have heard the person, you can plan your next move, if any. That’s right, if any. It’s possible the employee can satisfy your concerns. If so, think about it and meet with the employee again to tell them your thoughts and that, in your view, there is no longer a problem.

Step 2. Talk and Document

You’ve spelled out your concerns and heard the employee’s response. You’re still not satisfied. It’s time to have a second meeting. In this meeting, you will be much more directive. You should plan the meeting in a way that all the points you want to make are made. In addition, you’ll want to hear that the employee has “got it” and tells you they understand your concerns and the behavior will change to comport with your needs as the supervisor. Keep your plan (sign and date it) and a note that you conducted the meeting and covered your agenda. This is basically a “here’s what I want” meeting on the part of the supervisor. Keep it simple.

Step 3. Provide Rules and Document
Step 4. Counsel and Document
Step 5. Refer to EAP and Document

I’ll cover these together because there are times when all of this is in one step. If you get denial, resistance or what you believe is a passive-aggressive or other negative response, it’s time to share some paper with the employee.

Critical to handling the problem is giving the employee a copy of the applicable rules particularly those covering the appropriate use of sick leave and procedures to request leave. Also critical is an employee assistance program referral. Doing these two things puts the employee on notice that there are specific rules governing the behavior and a non-management place to go to discuss or get help with problems. Counseling is a term of art in some agencies. I use it here to mean a notice of expected behavior, in writing, provided the employee on a specific date and time.

Many of these problems have long lifetimes and time may pass between instances and meetings. It’s crucial not to let time pass between the identification of an issue and when you address it.

Step 6. Warn and Document

A warning letter may be a term of art in your agency. Here I use it to describe a letter that records all that has transpired thus far between the supervisor and employee and states that future behavior such as that observed and documented may result in disciplinary action. This may be called an “I’m serious, no kidding” letter. The goal is to give the employee an opportunity to fix the behavior before more drastic steps are taken.

Step 7. Improvement Agreement

An improvement agreement is a simple, helpful way to give an employee the chance to clean up their act. This should be introduced in a meeting with the employee in which the supervisor’s plan is to offer the individual a last chance to improve the behavior before more serious steps are taken. Some might argue that my advice, if followed, drags out the process. I believe the documentation of efforts to correct a problem will stand the agency in good stead if later action becomes necessary and is challenged before a third party.

An agency deciding official and an administrative judge want to be convinced that managers made a good faith effort to correct the problem before discipline or adverse action was initiated. Remember, you’re on the “road” and the “road” has predictable exits and destinations.

Step 8. Restrict Use and Document

After prior efforts have failed to correct the problem, you may have to issue a Sick Leave Restriction letter or memo. Once you’ve read the one provided, you’ll see its purpose is obvious. Supervisors must recognize that use of this kind of document requires them to track the employee’s use of sick leave and the provision of required documents. Holding the employee to the restriction is likely to resolve the problem. Once someone gets one of these, they have to be a fool not to recognize that things have gotten very serious.

Step 9. Reprimand
Step 10. Suspension 1
Step 11. Suspension 2
Step 12. Remove

I have lumped these together because they are covered in other articles and would only differ in terms of the charges and specifications. Generally, charges used include Absence without Leave, Unauthorized Absence, Failure to Call in an Absence, and the like. Also consider alternative discipline. I covered this in previous articles and leave abuse problems are good candidates for alternate discipline and from management’s perspective demonstrate further a good faith effort to resolve problems not leap into discipline.

Obviously there are endless variations to sick leave problems and again I want to stress the importance of getting help in drafting documents and developing strategies to address these problems. An experienced employee relations specialist can’t get through a month, or a week in some places, and too many others a day, without having to advise a manager on an issue involving sick leave. The important thing to keep in mind is that there is a solution to every employee relations problem if you get advice, plan your strategy, do the right thing (in every way) and follow through.

As always, any opinion expressed is mine and mine alone.

About the Author

Bob Gilson is a consultant with a specialty in working with and training Federal agencies to resolve employee problems at all levels. A retired agency labor and employee relations director, Bob has authored or co-authored a number of books dealing with Federal issues and also conducts training seminars.