Your receptionist calls in sick only on Fridays, never other days of the week.  Your maintenance man always seems to need to go home early with a sore back on days with home Major League Baseball games.  You hear reports that your computer technician was seen on the golf course on a sick day.  Your gut tells you that these employees are abusing your sick leave policy.  What should you do?  Here are some tips for addressing suspected sick leave abuse and proactive measures to help curb future abuse. 

Tip #1: Review Attendance Records 

Take a careful look at the employee’s attendance record and make sure your documentation supports your suspicions.  Is there really a pattern of days off right before or after weekends, holidays or vacations?  Did the employee provide a specific reason for his or her absences supported by medical documentation?  Is the employee authorized to take intermittent FMLA leave?  You need to verify the facts before you take any action.  You do not want to act on impulse and risk retaliating against a worker who is authorized to be absent under a designated FMLA leave, ADA reasonable accommodation or other protected reason. 

Tip #2: Discuss With The Employee 

If, after verifying the facts surrounding the employee’s sick days, you have reason to suspect abuse of sick time, schedule a meeting with the employee to discuss attendance issues.  Do not immediately accuse the employee of faking an illness on sick days but calmly explain what your records show.  Express your concerns in a non-confrontational manner (e.g., “It appears that you’ve taken a sick day every other Friday for the past 3 months” or “We are concerned that you might be using sick days when you are actually able to come into work”) and allow the employee to respond.  Often, what the employee tells you will guide your next steps.  In any case, the employee is now on notice that you’re aware of his or her sick time use and will be watching it in the future. 

Tip #3:  Require a Doctor’s Note 

After discussing your concerns with the employee, an effective option for curbing future abuse is requiring the employee to provide a doctor’s note for all future sick days, consistent with your sick leave policy.  If your sick leave policy provides that you may request medical documentation for sick days, or your policy is silent on this issue, inform your suspected abuser that he or she will need to submit a doctor’s note for any future instances of sick leave.  This added requirement typically limits abuse.  But just remember to keep medical information separate from other personnel records. 

Tip #4: Notify Employees that Sick Leave Abuse Will Not Be Tolerated 

Generally, you want to address the one or two problem employees directly rather than admonishing your entire workforce.  However, if sick leave abuse is widespread, consider sending out a company-wide e-mail reminding employees of the acceptable reasons for using sick leave and emphasizing that any abuse of sick leave will not be tolerated.  Keep the notice professional and non-accusatory.  Often, this type of timely reminder causes potential abusers to think twice the next time they consider using a sick day when they aren’t sick. 

Tip #5: Adopt Sick Leave Incentive or Attendance Awards 

If you give employees an incentive not to use sick leave, you’ll likely find that sick leave usage drops.  Critics may say that you shouldn’t have to give people an additional incentive to come to work or that incentive programs encourage employees to show up when they’re sick and contagious.  However, some workers respond well when given the chance to achieve recognition or other benefits for good attendance.  Options to consider include: 

  • Free lunch or a gift card for each quarter that an employee has perfect attendance;
  • A floating personal day off with pay for every six months without calling in sick;
  • An incentive bonus (e.g., eight hours of pay) for employees who use two sick days or less during the previous year;
  • Converting unused sick time (or a portion thereof) into additional vacation time next year;
  • Paying a portion of employees’ gym memberships for each month they do not use any sick time; or
  • Allowing employees to cash out their sick leave balance upon retirement. 

Another less direct incentive is to do away with a “use-it-or-lose-it” sick leave policy and allow employees to carry forward  a portion of unused sick time from year to year.  Yes, a higher sick leave balance is a liability for employers, but many employees want to save their sick time in case they incur a long-term illness or injury in the future.  Allowing them to bank sick time helps eliminate the urge for employees to use their sick time for non-sick reasons because they are about to lose it. 

Tip #6: Consider Whether a PTO System Is Appropriate for Your Business 

Instead of offering separate benefit programs for vacation, sick, and/or personal days, consider whether a paid time off (PTO) program would work for your company.  By allotting a certain number of days off to be used at the employee’s discretion, you eliminate having to administer multiple leave programs and you leave it up to the employee to decide the reason for taking time off.  You no longer care whether the employee is sick or taking a vacation day – it’s all the same to you.  

You can still put procedures in place to require advance notice of planned days off and a call-in process for unplanned absences.  But because either type of absence counts against the employee’s PTO bank, they are less likely to abuse the system.  Most employees want to preserve sufficient time for a vacation, lessening the urge to use all their time for unplanned absences.  

Final Thoughts

The old phrase is “one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch.”  Don’t let a few scheming employees taint your approach to offering sick leave and other benefits that the majority of employees value and use appropriately.  Review your sick leave policy, revise it to allow for additional processes, as needed, and enforce it consistently and uniformly.  If you suspect abuse, follow the tips above to put a stop to it.