How to Discipline a Frequently Ill Employee

How to Discipline a Frequently Ill Employee
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An employee indulging in sick leave abuse crosses the delicate line that separates genuinely taking days off from work owing to sickness or other ailments and taking undue advantage of the privilege or violating the laid down attendance policy.

Employees abusing sick leave privileges increase the costs of running the business. The additional costs brought about by employee absences include overtime pay for other employees, cost of hiring temps, cost of missed deadlines and lost sales, and the cost of sinking morale and lower productivity. Unscheduled absenteeism costs organizations an average of $602 per employee per year in direct costs, and scheduled sick leaves costs much more.

For this reason, many business owners find it necessary - at one time or another - to discipline a frequently ill employee.

Image Credit: Goehring


The precursor to discipline a frequently ill employee is counseling. The onus is on the company’s HR to talk to the employee and find out the reason for taking excessive sick leaves. The employee may have been diagnosed with a serious illness and might not want to disclose the fact. Or, the employee might face some serious family related issues. Regardless of the reason, the HR needs to convince the employee of the need for promptness and facilitate the employee’s attendance at work regularly.

The best approach is to intervene as early as possible. Pulling up the employee when the stick leave abuse starts usually help fix the issue through counseling and employee assistance programs, without having to resort to any drastic measures.


Organizations would do well to study the trends and statistics of sick leave abuse before taking disciplinary action against the employee. Finding the root cause can help solve the issue much more effectively than hasty disciplinary actions does.

If most employees who take frequent sick leave are from a particular shift or work location, the problem could relate to some unhealthy working conditions in the particular workplace, such as a malfunctioning air conditioner, poor lighting, or the like.

If statistics show a high proportion of leave abuse coming from a particular department (or supervisors), the supervisor - rather than the employees who take the leave - might require counseling.

Disciplinary Procedures

When counseling fails, managers need to set their sympathies and emotions aside to enforce sick leave policies by taking appropriate action as per the attendance policy.

Employees have a responsibility to attend work regularly, and failure to do so allows the employer to initiate disciplinary action. The attendance policy should, however, be clear on what constitutes leave abuse, the different punishments for different types and severity of the abuse.

Considerations of flexibility and equity need to guide the application of the attendance policy. The need for flexibility stem from each individual cases of excessive leave taking varying, with some cases of abuse invariably resulting from genuine cases. The application of flexibility on a consistent basis promotes equity.

The leave policy needs to specify that discipline, including termination, may result from repeated sick leave abuse and misuse. Furthermore, managers need to ensure that all employees reporting to him or her have read and understood the policy.

The strict application of a sick leave policy requires the line managers and supervisors taking a firm view, and saying “no” to sick leave requests unless the employee can prove illness through doctors reports, prescriptions, or medical certificates.

Documenting the entire procedure of leave-application, leave-approval, and leave-taking is important to provide concrete evidence for any disciplinary actions for leave abuse.

Discipline a Frequently Ill Employee

The dispute related to a sick leave occurs in two dimensions:

  • when the employee exceeds his or her allocated quota of sick leaves
  • when the employer contents that the employee abuses the privileges while remaining within the allowed quota of sick leave.

The employer has the right to initiate disciplinary proceedings on any employee who exceeds his or her quota of sick leaves for the period. The law, however, does not allow the employer to establish a fixed amount or percentage of sick leave usage to trigger discipline. If the employer contents the employee abuses sick leave privileges, or has taken sick leaves without actually being sick, each case needs independent examination with consideration of all evidence and circumstances. A plausible evidence for employees abusing sick leave privileges is a pattern of availing sick leave in conjunction with a holiday.

Two legislations place restrictions on a company to discipline a frequently ill employee. These include the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The FMLA that covers employers with 50 or more employees, and requires employers to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a 12-month period for family and medical reasons. The ADA applies to employers with 15 or more employees and requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified individuals with disabilities unless such accommodations impose an undue hardship on the business. Reasonable accommodations may include part-time or modified work schedules and unpaid leave.

Both the FLMA and ADA prohibit the employer from taking an employee’s FMLA or ADA covered leave into account when considering absences as “excessive” under the attendance policy.

FLMA however does not protect an employee from the consequences of their performance while working or require the employer to reduce the employee’s workload. As such, an employee failing to perform owing to taking too many sick leaves may still be subject to disciplinary action, including termination.

A new bill proposes to restrain employers from discharging, demoting, suspending, disciplining or discriminating against an employee who fail to report to work at the specified time owing to illness of the employee or the employee’s family member for up to five working days per employee within a 12 month period.

Image Credit: Kiel

The hassle of discipline a frequently sick employee prompt many organizations offer cash benefits or other incentives to encourage them to attend work. The payment of sick leave incentives is controversial, for one school of thought considers it as an attempt to bribe employees, and that such approach punishes those who turn up to work legitimately.


  1. Martinez, Mary. “Discipline For Attendance.” Retrieved from on 09 November 2010
  2. Atwood, Pierce. “Paid Sick Leave Bill Amended, Now Prohibits Discipline Due to Absence for Illness” Retrieved from on 10 November 2010
  3. Gurchiek, Kathy. Society for Human Resource Management. “Managers, Employees View Presenteeism Differently.” Retrieved from on 10 November 2010.