As employers, we face a sobering reality: at every turn, the FMLA sets us up to fail.

Whether it’s deciphering medical certification, assessing fitness for duty upon return to work, or dealing with the always frustrating intermittent leave, the FMLA is full of booby traps ready to nail us the instant we slip up.

Chief among these traps is trying to determine precisely the moment when an employee has put the employer on notice of the need for FMLA leave. To those not familiar with the FMLA, it seems easy enough — after all, FMLA isn’t triggered until the employee informs the employer they need leave covered by the FMLA. The FMLA regulations provide only the following guidance when it comes to employee notice:

An employee shall provide sufficient information for an employer to reasonably determine whether the FMLA may apply to the leave request. 29 CFR 825.303(b)

Sufficient information, huh? Don’t we wish it were that easy! How do we know when the employee has provided information sufficient enough for us to realize they are asking for leave that may be covered by the FMLA? There is no magic formula to get it right. Yet, when we don’t get it right, the liability can be tremendous.

Take, for instance, a real-life situation I recently encountered. My client employed a custodian who, by any measure, had a deplorable attendance record. You name the excuse for not showing up for work, and she used it.

She also had a bad back — a chronic bad back that she didn’t report until her deposition with me. In that deposition, instead of acknowledging that she simply called in “sick” on the night that later led to her termination, she manufactured a reason, claiming she reported to her manager that she would miss work because of her “bad back.” The problem for my client was that it did not properly log her call and the reason for her absence, which opened the door for this former employee to put her own spin on the excuse she gave that day.

Insights for Employers

Employers, when it comes to employee notice, it is critical that we formulate specific call-in procedures for reporting leave and set up a compliant system for handling and memorializing the reason(s) employees give us when they miss work. When we don’t do so, we take on way too much risk. Implement the following to substantially minimize your liability:

1. Maintain effective call-in procedures. Every employer should maintain a call-in policy that, at a minimum, specifies when the employee should report any absence (e.g., “one hour before your shift”), the person to whom they should report the absence, and what the content of the call off should be. If you don’t have call-in procedures set up in an employee handbook or personnel policy that is distributed to employees, begin working now with your employment counsel to put these procedures in place. They will help you better administer FMLA leave, combat FMLA abuse, help you address staffing issues at the earliest time possible, and establish a strong defense if litigation ensues.

2. Require actual information from your employees! How many of you allow your employees to leave cryptic messages for you on Company voicemail when reporting an absence? Do you have a practice of returning these voicemail messages? How many of you actually probe further to determine the reason for the call off? A couple of thoughts to obtain the information you need to determine whether FMLA applies:

• First, include very clear language in your FMLA and other leave policies about how you expect your employees to communicate with you regarding the need for leave of any kind. (In your policy, you’ll also want to include expectations for completing a leave of absence request form, which I also recommend.) My “model” policy provision looks something like this:

• When you contact Human Resources to report your need for leave, you must provide at least the following information:

o The specific reason for your absence, with sufficient information to allow the [Employer] to determine whether the FMLA may apply to your request;

o When your leave will begin and when you expect to return to work, including specific dates and times of absences, if known;

o A telephone number where you may be reached for further information.

• Second, ask questions of your employees to elicit enough facts about their absence so you can be in the best position to determine whether FMLA might be in play. As you have read in my previous blog posts, I recommend using a script of questions to assist you in your efforts.

3. Use a Uniform Approach to Documenting Absences. Many of you “log” all the call-ins for a particular shift in some book or the back of a napkin that never sees the light of day. Work with your employment counsel to construct a system for logging calls which requires as much information as possible and a review by HR or a leave administrator so that the employer follows up on potential FMLA-related absences.

4. Use a Leave Request Form for all absences. Where possible, require your employees to submit a leave request form for all absences so you know — on paper — the reasons for their need for leave. If they have an unforeseeable absence, require that they fill out a form upon their return to work. Having the reason in writing helps you better determine whether FMLA might be in play.

5. Use Personal certification. For those who can pull this from an administrative standpoint, require all your employees to provide personal certification after every absence (FMLA or otherwise) confirming that they look leave for the reasons provided. See my previous post that addresses personal certification in greater detail.

6. Audit Absences at the Time of Termination. Before you hit the termination button on an employee due to attendance issues, please please please conduct an audit of all the absences serving as the basis for the termination decision and confirm with documentation (see your new logging system above) that none of these absences could have been covered by the FMLA or ADA. If there is any doubt about whether one or more days could have been covered by FMLA, ask the employee about the absence.

7. Train any and all managers remotely involved in the FMLA process. Employers, I love you dearly, but many of you are guilty of this FMLA 101 principle — you require that your manager play some role in the attendance or call-in process (e.g., they pick up the phone to take the employee’s call when they can’t come to work), but you do nothing to train them about the FMLA and how to recognize a potential FMLA absence. Simply put, the average manager doesn’t have a clue as to their responsibilities in the FMLA/leave of absence process. As a result, because you save a few pennies now in not training them now, you exponentially increase the potential for litigation (and a judgment against you).

Don’t waste another minute. Train. Them. Now.