How to Respond to Employees Calling in Sick

Andrew Buck's avatar Andrew Buck July 24, 2023

Any manager or small business owner knows it’s not fun when an employee calls in sick. You dread these calls, especially when they come in at the last minute, as they send you scrambling to cover and keep the business running in their absence.

How you handle situations like this is important. It can affect your entire team, your company culture, long-term engagement and retention, and also the likelihood of sick leave becoming a problem in your business. Read on and we’ll share everything you need to know to minimize any issues.

Further Reading: 11 Tips to Reduce Absenteeism in the Workplace

What to Say When an Employee Calls in Sick

It’s easy to be reactive and respond tersely when an employee calls in sick. You might see the extra work you and your team will have to do to cover for them. It’s also common to jump to the conclusion that the employee is lying, or stretching the truth and that they could come in sick.

Avoid any of this. You should always lead with trust. It’s better to get it wrong by trusting an employee who was lying than to assume someone is lying when they’re actually sick. You need this trust to run a cohesive and productive team.

The first thing you should do when an employee calls in sick is to wish them a fast recovery. Ask for some minor details, such as what the issue is, and how serious they think it is (to get an idea how long they will be absent for).

But avoid prying, and if the employee doesn’t feel like sharing much, don’t push too much.

Remember, if they’re actually sick, they probably won’t feel like talking a whole lot right now. And some health issues can be very personal, so the team member may not feel comfortable fully opening up.

Don’t play it like a poker game and try to guess if they’re bluffing. You can examine trends and do a little follow-up investigation if you suspect sick leave abuse, but at the first step make sure you act friendly and professional, and keep it brief.

Once you hang up, run through your standard sick leave procedure.

Sick Leave Procedure

It’s important to have a standard procedure you follow whenever someone calls in sick. Automatically follow the same steps every time, to ensure you keep good track of employee absences, plus minimize the negative impact of such absences.

Here’s a simple sick leave procedure you could follow in your business:

Handling Last-Minute Sick Calls

Acting calm is a lot easier when you have time to prepare and cover for the employee. But what about when you get a call 10 minutes before they’re supposed to start work?

While it might seem like you’ve been dealt a raw hand, understand that last-minute sick calls happen, and they’re often legitimate. It’s particularly common for 9-5 workers – you wake up sick, there’s not much you can do about it, and there’s little room to give notice.

Handle last-minute sick calls the same way you do regular calls: friendly and professionally, followed by your regular sick leave procedure. Just pay particular attention to any patterns, such as employees who often call in at the last minute (you can note this in your absence tracker).

Write in your attendance policy that as much advance leave as possible is preferred, but also understand that we don’t get advance notice that we’re going to be sick.

Further Reading: want to get the lowdown on how many sick days per year is normal? Check out this article to learn more.

How to Respond to an Employee Texting in Sick

Texting in sick can be a tricky situation to handle. A lot of companies put it in policy that employees should call in, not text in sick. However, again, you want to lead with trust and understand where employees may be coming from.

If you’re sick, you don’t feel like doing much (if anything) at all. A lot of the time, the last thing we want to do is talk to someone on the phone.

You may get more notice if you allow employees to text in sick rather than having a strict call-only rule. At the end of the day, this is better for you.

Though it does make it easier for people to take a sick day when they’re not really sick, consider it a risk of doing business. There are other ways to identify and cut out sick leave abuse.

Dealing with Repeat Offenders: Employees Who Call in Sick a Lot

As we said, at first, you want to approach sick calls with trust. Don’t assume someone is trying to pull a fast one.

But there are repeat offenders who regularly call in (or text in) sick. Whether legitimate or not, it’s ultimately not good for productivity if someone is constantly off sick. So what can you do about it?

Here are five things you can do to address repeat sick callers (particularly if you suspect they’re not being honest).

Refer to your sick leave/attendance policy

You should have an attendance policy in place, or at least some section in your company documentation that covers paid sick leave.

This policy can mention how much notice is required to call in sick, how and who employees should inform, and any other responsibilities. Also outline what happens with unexplained or unapproved absences.

Following up, especially with disciplinary actions, is far easier and safer if you have a policy behind you, which employees have signed and agreed to.

Ensure your fully document absences

Clear and complete documentation of employee absences is important for a couple of reasons.

One, it helps you identify trends. This is what will put you on the trail of abusers (not by detecting a certain pitch in their voice when they call in). If you notice a pattern with employees’ absences, you can begin to investigate and find out more.

Don’t just document the date, also make notes of what they said, when they called, etc. You might just find out someone’s grandmother died for the fourth time, or they’ve had their appendix out twice.

Second, if you need to follow up with the employee, you want a rock-solid record of their absences, so that you’re approaching the situation with facts, rather than assumptions.

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Ask for more details (e.g. doctor’s note)

It’s acceptable to ask for a doctor’s note for multi-day or regular absences. Though this doesn’t guarantee that a sick call is legitimate (it’s easy to go to the doctor, fake symptoms and get a note), it makes it harder for people to get away with a fake call.

If it is legitimate, it will also help you better understand how long you’ll be without the employee.

You can also ask for a few more details about the issue from the employee. Don’t pry, and don’t demand the employee open up fully about something that may be personal, but you can ask a few friendly questions to learn more about the situation.

Check in with the employee when they come back to work

Sit down and talk with regular absentees. Communication is the first step towards finding a solution.

This is not just relevant for cases of potential abuse. If someone takes a lot of paid sick days, even if they’re legitimate, you’ll still want to check in with them and figure out a way to improve the situation.

You’re approaching this from a position of wanting to help them, not necessarily discipline them. They likely don’t want to be sick so often either, so you both want the same thing.

You can, however, slightly touch on the fact that being absent so often is not good for business (point to your attendance policy here), to add a little urgency to the matter, and get the employee to take it seriously.

Investigate if you suspect abuse

Sick leave abuse is never a good thing, not just for the lost productivity, but for the negative implications for company culture from having someone like this in the team.

Without intruding on the employee’s privacy, do some investigation and see if any evidence comes to light. If you have clear evidence that they’re lying, you have more solid grounds for disciplinary action.

In some locations, removing a problem employee can be difficult, so make sure you have as much ammunition as possible to take with you.

Can an Employee Be Fired for Calling in Sick Too Much?

Letting go of an employee for taking too muck sick time is a tricky area, which differs depending on your local labor laws.

In most cases, you cannot fire someone for calling in sick too much. However there are a lot of “ifs” and “buts” here.

Outside of at-will employment, letting someone go for repeat sick days is difficult, and you can be hit with significant legal consequences if you don’t do it the right way. So always take care, even if you’re taking action against a clear abuser.

Keep in mind that this article does not constitute legal advice. For true legal advice, get in touch with an employment law professional.

Reducing the Impact of Sick Leave in Your Business

Instead of trying to cut out sick days, by discouraging sick calls or disciplining employees for calling in sick too much, a more effective (and safer) strategy is to work on reducing the impact that each sick employee has on your business.

Some things that may help are:

Offering sick leave is essential – without it, you risk an unhappy/unhealthy workforce, and will struggle to attract and retain talent.

Treat sick leave as a cost of doing business, like wages. It can even be an opportunity – reacting with trust and professionalism when someone calls in sick may lead them to become more engaged and committed to the job.

Andrew Buck's avatar

Andrew Buck

Andrew is the content manager at Flamingo. He has managed teams in multiple industries, for both physical and remote businesses, and has experience dealing with the ins and outs of HR and leave management on a daily basis.

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