Unplanned Absences

It’s been a couple of months since I shared anything here. Feels like longer. Careers, health (I’m fine, thank you) and well, life, sometimes intrudes in ways that throw us off track. As the old saying goes, “If you want to make God laugh, make plans,”


And this all got me thinking about unplanned absences at work. I remember back when the FMLA was new and completely misunderstood. Lots of employees thought the FMLA was like a “Get out of jail FREE” card that prevented their employers from ever writing them up for poor attendance again, as if FMLA stood for Forget My Last Absence. The company I was working with planned a massive education initiative, but we wanted it to be more.

We knew, everybody knew, that lots of employees used their sick days when they weren’t really sick. Doctor’s visits, sick kids, taking a spouse or aging parent to a treatment. And it drove managers nuts when their employees sprang these absences, ones they actually knew about in advance, on them at the last minute so that the manager found herself scrambling for coverage.

We decided to create two classifications of absences in an effort to enhance communication between managers and staff. This was kind of a predecessor of a PTO (Paid Time Off) bank. If the employee knew they needed a day, or a half a day, for a doctor visit, theirs or a family member’s, if they gave the manager 48 hours notice then the time would be deducted from their sick days, but the absence would not count toward any kind of disciplinary action. The goal was to reduce the gamesmanship between managers and employees and improve both trust and productivity in the workplace.

We sold the managers on this by pointing out that if they had enough notice, they could prepare and lessen the impact of the absence. And we found that the employees loved not having to play the game or worry about being caught in the traps some managers set for them upon their return. No more coughing like Mimi in the last act of “La Boheme” when you came in the next day.

Open communication and trust can be wonderful things when used to motivate the behaviors you desire.

Goethe once said, “The way you see people is the way you treat them. And the way you treat them is what they become.” We took a gamble on seeing and treating employees like honest, responsible adults and that’s exactly how they behaved. Remarkable.