Difficult Conversations — When ‘Hi boss, I’ll be out sick today’ doesn’t ring true

By: Katie Loehrke

Publication: Employee Relations Management Today

Date Posted: 01/29/2018

<Cough, cough> I won’t be in today. I’m <ahem> sick

It’s a fact of life. Employees get sick. But it’s also a fact that some employees call in when they’re not sick at all. In a November 2017 CareerBuilder survey, 40 percent of workers admitted to calling in sick at least once over the previous year when they were perfectly healthy.

So what can you do when an employee calls in and you suspect their illness is more convenient than contagious?

1. Reconsider whether you care

Your company likely provides employees with sick leave specifically or a paid time off (PTO) bank. If so, remember that your organization provides that time expecting that employees won’t be at work every day of the year. Sure, it might irk you if you have reason to believe employees are not being truthful, but particularly if you have a PTO bank that combines sick and vacation time, the time is theirs to use.

Even if you suspect that the employee may not be ill, consider that he still may have needed a break. Where this could be the case, your real problem may be that the employee didn’t feel comfortable admitting to you that he needed some downtime.

Whether you care about the employee’s potentially false reason for calling in will also depend, in part, on the effect of his absence(s). Employees who work independently might be able to take an unplanned day off here and there without causing much of a stir.

2. Contemplate the (actual) cause

Does the employee regularly call in fake-sick on days he has important presentations? If you spot a pattern like this one, make sure the individual knows of your observation — in some cases, letting an employee know he’s been found out is enough to stop the bad behavior.

It could also lead the two of you to a more robust conversation about what the employee does and does not like about his job. Perhaps he needs training to help him become more confident with presentations, or perhaps you can agree that presenting need not be a part of his job at all.

3. Pay attention to patterns

Unless you’re always suspicious, odds are that you’re raising one eyebrow because the employee has given you some reason to doubt his call-in excuse. In such a case, look objectively at timekeeping records and the individual’s PTO balance to determine (1) whether the employee has taken more time off than your organization allows, and/or (2) whether he tends to take time off at specific times (Mondays and/or Fridays, at the beginning or end of the months, or around paydays, for example).

4. Address identified problems

If an employee’s absences are causing problems, and you have reason to believe that the reasons for time off weren’t authentic, discuss your findings with the employee, and explain they arouse your suspicion. Explain what corrections you expect will be made, and what will happen if what you’ve uncovered continues. The conversation might go a little something like this:

“Marvin, over the past month, you’ve had five unplanned absences, and as you know, it can be tough for the team to cover for a team member that’s out. Of course, I understand that there are reasons people can’t be at work, but five absences is well over what we typically expect in a month. What’s more, I’ve noticed that four of these absences are on Mondays or Fridays, and I have to admit, I do wonder whether this is more than just a coincidence.

I thought I’d let you know what I’ve noticed so you can be aware of it, and hopefully the pattern I’m noticing won’t continue. I’m hoping I can expect you to take only 4 or 5 unplanned days off over the course of an entire year, and I would expect that this Monday-Friday pattern wouldn’t continue. If it does, I’ll have to consider more serious discipline than a simple conversation. Can you commit to remedying these issues?”


What can you ask? Get enough information, but don’t pry.

Many supervisors are confused about what they can and cannot ask employees about when they call in to work. This is understandable, particularly since the Americans with Disabilities act (ADA) limits how much medical information employers may request.


If an employee calls in and simply states that she won’t be coming in that day, you may ask for the reason. If an employee states that she is sick, you needn’t ask for more details, but may want to ask if the individual has any idea how long she will be out.


If the employee indicates that the absence may go on for several days, or that she can’t perform her job because of a medical condition, the absence may need to be earmarked as leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). It’s wise to get HR involved at that point.

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