Discover How Your Rigid Sick Leave Policy Hurts Your Business

Are You Firing Good Employees Because of Your Rigid Sick Leave Policy?

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James was fired from his job for missing 3 days of work during the first 90 days on the job. Pretty straight forward, right? The company had a clear policy - 3 days gone and you're out - and the HR department applies it fairly and across the board.

No exceptions. Sounds like a great sick leave policy with no room for bias or discrimination to play a role. Except consider the following additional facts.

  1. James came in every day and his supervisor sent him home because he appeared ill.
  2. James wasn't actually contagious - he was just suffering side effects from an antibiotic and brought a note in from his doctor to verify this fact.
  3. James worked in a hospital, so if he had been contagious, he would have posed a hazard to already ill patients.
  4. James' supervisor had no idea that sending him home until his symptoms subsided would result in a termination. She fought the termination, but ultimately lost.

It doesn't seem like a great policy any more, does it? Zero tolerance attendance policies seem to make sense on the surface, but in reality, nothing is that easy. Do you really want a policy that punishes people for catching the flu?

Would you prefer that people come in and share their germs with the rest of your staff and customers (and in the case of a medical facility, the patients)? This results in more people getting sick and further lowered productivity.

Of course not. So, why have these policies?

Some logic exists about adopting a zero tolerance attendance policy. Not everyone tells the truth about illness. In fact, lots of people admit to lying when they call in sick, or justify it as a “mental health day.”

Businesses need regular staff on hand in order to do their work.

James worked as an orderly at a hospital - a necessary job. When he wasn't there, someone else had to come in on their day off in order to do the work he wasn't doing.

Lots of jobs are like that: being out causes inconvenience for everyone else. So, in order to keep people from skipping work to go to the latest movie or simply because they don't feel like it, companies institute these harsh attendance policies, especially in an employees' first few months on the job.

Make Sure Your Policy Is Legal

While such policies were almost universally legal in the past, you'll find that you need to make sure that such a policy doesn't violate federal, state, or local law. For instance:

Federal laws: While the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) only applies to people who have been with the company for over a year, and only covers serious illnesses, you need to lookout to make sure you aren't violating that law.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is in effect on the employee's first day or work, and can also cover situations where an employee might need a day off here or there.

The question is, is this a reasonable accommodation? In many cases, taking more than 3 sick days in a 90 day period will qualify as reasonable.

State laws: Several states have now implemented sick leave policies. These vary from state to state and from job to job, but just because your policy was legal last year, doesn't mean it's necessarily legal this year.

Some states have waiting periods before sick days are allowed, and others limit the positions that it applies to. Double check your state laws. Some of these laws allow for employees to take time off to care for a sick child as well.

Local laws: Some municipalities have jumped on the sick leave bandwagon as well. San Francisco and Philadelphia both have sick leave laws on the books. Your town may too. Better be sure.

What's a Better Policy?

What's a better, more forgiving, way to approach a zero tolerance attendance policy? While there's no problem with having a strict time and attendance policy, you should have specified exceptions. For instance, as in James' case, if a manager sends an employee home, that shouldn't count against the employee.

A doctor's note indicating a serious illness should negate the black mark against the employee.

You do want a policy that is fair that you can administer without prejudice. But, you also want one that makes sense. That means allowing specific exceptions into your sick time policy. 

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