Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – the picture perfect example of why employers should require medical notes for “sick days”.

On Wednesday January 8, 2014, the Globe and Mail published an article titled:  “Stop asking employees for sick notes, OMA head urges” written by Erin Anderssen. The article stated:

In a written statement posted online, the president of the Ontario Medical Association, Dr. Scott Wooder, urged employees with the flu to stay home – and their employers not to ask them for sick notes that require a visit to a doctor’s office. That’s a costly practice, Wooder pointed out, since it fills up appointment times unnecessarily and brings sick people into a waiting room, where they can infect other patients waiting to see the doctor.

When I read this article, the employment lawyer in me immediately jumped to the defense of those employers who have established a requirement to provide medical notes for absences due to illness. I asked myself: Don’t people understand that employers have a right to make sure that their employees are being honest about their need to be absent from work? Don’t people understand that businesses depend upon employee labour to survive? Have people not watched the 1986 movie: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off starring Mathew Broderick?

For those of you who may not have seen the movie, it is a comedy whose lead character is a high school wise guy determined to have a day off from school (where he lies to his parents about being sick and the need to stay home from school and he takes elaborate steps to cover up his lie in the event that anyone questions the veracity of his illness). Of course the lengths to which his high school principal and others go to in order to “uncover” what they believe to be his lie, provide a large part of the comedic entertainment in the movie.

Ferris Bueller (although a fictional character) is unfortunately representative of some of the employeesabout whom our employer clients have contacted me to discuss – the employees who are not honest and use illness to obtain an additional vacation day. All too often, employee absenteeism becomes excessive. While some absences are absolutely legitimate (I often refer to those as “non-culpable”), others are not legitimate ( I often refer to those as “culpable”).

I’ve heard critics of the requirement to provide medical notes argue that the “rogue” employees (those who have culpable absences) are far and few between; and that those employees should not dictate an employer’s treatment of all its employees. However, the large number of conversations I’ve had on this topic with employers over the years, in my opinion, indicates otherwise. Having said that, I do not support the outright obsessive tracking down of the “truth” as displayed by Principal Ed Rooney in the movie. However I do think that employers need to establish protocols (like the requirement to provide medical notes or policies) which assist an employer in determining when an absence is non-culpable or culpable.

While the rationale for the plea by Dr. Wooder of the OMA is certainly understandable from the point of view of the cost to our health care system, and from the point of view of the desire to stop the spread of illness to others (although for those employees who live in areas serviced by at home doctor visits paid by OHIP, the “spread of illness to others” rationale doesn’t quite work since sick individuals remain at home), the “Ferris Buellers” or “rogues” of the working world have made me a proponent of the medical note requirement notwithstanding.

Employers should be sensible when instituting policies pertaining to the provision of medical notes. Here’s how:

  • Medical notes should not be required for sporadic single day absences.
  • However, medical notes should be required where an employee has been absent from work on multiple “ single day ” occasions and where those absences are excessive. “Excess” can be defined, for example, as being greater than a company-wide or department-wide average.
  • Medical notes should also be required after an employee has been away ill for several consecutive days (in which case an employee is likely to have attended to see a medical practitioner in any case due to the duration of the illness).

While employers do not have a right to know the diagnosis related to the employee’s absence, an employer does have the right to know the medical prognosis so that they can manage the workload and workplace accordingly. Furthermore, while employees are not required to provide their diagnosis, being seen by a doctor may permit a conscientious employee to voluntarily disclose if they have a contagious illness (like H1N1) thereby permitting an employer to disseminate health-related information to other employees and to take all appropriate actions in the workplace to stop the spread.

Medical notes are not a nuisance requirement, they serve multiple workplace purposes, including but not limited to, the identification of the “Ferris Buellers” in our workplaces.