Getting a Handle on Leave: 15 Things Every Federal Manager Can Do

Over 75% of disciplinary and adverse action cases in the Federal service involve attendance related issues. If a supervisor or manager is going to deal with an employee problem, it is almost always going to have an attendance component. This article discusses what you can do to prepare yourself to resolve these problems.

Just about every supervisor will face an attendance problem of one kind or another and that problem is more likely to involve attendance than any other issue. Whether it’s tardiness, unscheduled leave, leave abuse or whatever, there are some simple steps you can take to educate and prepare yourself to deal with attendance issues. If you follow these steps, you are much more likely to minimize the problems and achieve a satisfactory solution than if you use a react and learn as you go approach.

1. Learn the Basic Rules.

For almost all Feds, the fundamental regulation is OPM’s 5 C.F.R. 630, Sections 101 to 1309.

In addition, you must get familiar with your Agency’s policies on leave which supplement those issued by OPM. OPM has a home page on Leave Administration. Also look for any contract provisions if your staff is represented by a union.

2. Get a Grip on FMLA.

The Family and Medical Leave Act which prompted Sections 630.1201-1211 of OPM’s Regs is critical to your understanding of today’s leave environment. In fact, most supervisors I’ve met will tell you that FMLA is the cause of many leave problems because it creates a right to leave that trumps an Agency’s right to assign work. Be that as it may, understanding FMLA’s provisions should be high on your to do list. Check out OPM’s Page on FMLA.

3. Keep a Paper or E Copy of Applicable Rules

Whether in your computer in a folder called “Leave Rules” or in one of those ubiquitous government knubbley black 3 ring binders, make sure the leave rules and related documents are where you can reach them in a hurry.

4. Set Clear Expectations

Make sure each of the people you supervise has a copy of the Agency’s leave rules along with a memo from you emphasizing the important provisions including requesting and calling in procedures, forms to use and other day to day essential information. If your employees are covered by a contract, be sure to emphasize that as well.

5. Remind Staff of Expectations

Make yourself a note to regularly remind people of the requirements in staff meetings. It’s a bad idea to discuss a specific employee’s problems in a general meeting but a good idea to encourage employees to know and follow attendance rules.

6. Enforce Rules

Make sure each employee who evidences any kind of attendance problem gets a response from you. Always take circumstances into consideration but also always let them know that you know the rules and are willing to enforce them. You will always have problems with inconsistent or lax enforcement but they’ll be minimized with prompt and consistent attention when that attention is warranted.

7. Require a Written Request

OPM publishes a Standard Form (SF) 71 that may be filled out on the computer. Some Agencies use this, others may have their own, but all have some written form. Using a form is habit forming and keeps everybody straight.

8. Track Leave Usage

Keep or be able to locate employee time, attendance and leave records. If, for example, sick leave of a single day unconnected to a chronic, documented condition is regularly used or requested on Mondays, Fridays, days before or after holidays, etc., you may be looking at a problem. Talk to you HR advisors about how to recognize leave abuse problems. Documentation is key to problem resolution.

9. Question Inconsistent Requests

Call employees on it if sick leave requests appear inconsistent with documented conditions, if annual leave is requested at the last minute when workload is heavy or deadlines imminent and the like. Letting people know you are paying attention will head off potential problems in the vast majority of cases.

10. Act on a Failure to Call In

I recommend that any failure to call in an unscheduled absence requires a piece of paper in response. Whether that piece of paper is advisory, a warning or discipline depends on the circumstances but no employee at any level should be unaccountable for their attendance. Otherwise chaos, instead of management, will rule.

11. Discourage Last Minute Requests

Obviously, stuff happens and employees have lives outside of work. However, if work responsibilities appear on the way to being a minor consideration with an employee, it’s time to remind them where the paycheck originates. Most leave can and should be planned. Encourage it.

12. Require Documentation of Sick Leave Usage Consistent with Policy

Getting a medical baseline for chronic conditions or those that will required repeated sick leave use is essential. This is a series of articles in itself but I can tell you from years of experience that a supervisor will regret failing to require documentation more often than not.

13. Get Help With Medical Issues

Following up on the last point, sit down with your HR advisor early on and get help addressing medical issues. Medical issues are without doubt the most complex you’re likely to face. They’re not impossible ore even difficult to deal with if you get off on the right foot to start with and stay on top of problems as they develop.

14. Get a Copy of a Sample Leave Restriction Letter

Every Federal Agency issues leave restriction letters routinely. If they don’t, someone is asleep at the switch. Get a sanitized (for Privacy Act reasons) copy of recent ones from your HR advisors and get familiar with the provisions. Ask questions if you need to.

15. Take Formal Action if Informal Action Doesn’t Work

Leave restriction is not disciplinary in nature but can be enforced with discipline if an employee decides not to comply. When you deal with leave problems as a routine matter, eventually you’ll come upon a situation requiring discipline. I’ve heard it said that discipline is good for morale because employees who follow the rules can become dissatisfied when those who don’t are not dealt with by management. It’s your call.

Obviously there’s much more to dealing with attendance problems than we’ve covered here. But the above is a good start.

Remember, I alone am responsible for any opinions expressed above. Comments are always appreciated.

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.