Darryl Stewart
By Darryl Stewart

When absenteeism crosses the line

A blog reader reached out to me recently about a situation with one of their staff, let’s call her Mary.  Mary was “a good worker when she was at work”:  likeable, intelligent, and hard working.

Absences have always been an issue for her, however.  Mary was the only employee in the company who used up all her sick days and always needed more.  To their credit, the company accepted this.  She was a working mother, whose stated main focus in life was her kids.  The company understood that she needed more leeway than the average employee and happily gave it.  It was a bargain for the high level of work she did when she was there and it was also the right thing to do.

The problem was that the absences had become weekly occurrences and gone beyond the usual reasoning and into the “I am not able to come in today”.  No explanations.

Don't let absenteeism fester. Talk about it.  Image by Geralt.
Don’t let absenteeism fester. Talk about it.
Image by Geralt.

The company had suggested that Mary drop to 4 days a week and made a few other gestures to try and make the new reality work, none met with enthusiasm or improvement from her.  Although the company was vaguely aware that there were some new dynamics going on at home, they were growing alarmed at the absences, missed deadlines, and co-workers being thrown into chaos.

I saw a number of problems with the situation. One was that while management was talking over every solution possible, including firing her, no one had spoken to Mary about the seriousness of the situation.  There was a very real possibility that she was going to get fired over this.  The company didn’t want to be too tough on her so they were reluctant to share how serious the situation was. My shared thoughts were that it would be far tougher if they kept beating around the bush, then she showed up one day to be told she was fired.

“If we can’t find a solution to this problem, we may have to let you go.”  This was the truth of the matter and Mary needed to hear it to have an opportunity to be honest about her own situation and/or fix the problem herself.

A great leader will not let someone go for a festering performance issue without giving them plenty of direct, timely, and specific feedback on what the problem is, flexible, individual support with respect to the problem, opportunity to address the situation and direct unambiguous warning when it gets to a serious level.  If a termination needs to happen, it should not be a surprise to anyone.  In my experience, this will usually lead to improvement or resignation.  Termination is rarely required.