How to manage employees who pull sickies?

Managers may often feel that they ‘know’ when employees are faking an absence. The gut feeling may be based on their personal relationship with the employee or the fact that they have noticed patterns of absence e.g. repeatedly taking sick days on a Friday. Relying on instict is not an approach we recommend. This article explains the best practice for addressing absences that you think may not be genuine.

Line managers should not play detective

Managers may also use social networking sites such as Facebook to check up on their employees – according to HR Magazine, 6% of managers have done this. Some have even been known to drive to the employee’s house to try and catch them out (approx. 9%). But unless you are a medical professional and have examined the employee, you stand on shaky ground if you start playing detective.

There are a whole host of legal issues that could arise from the outright accusation of faking sicknesses or just from the behaviour exhibiting that you do not believe the employee (such as unannounced visits to their house). Examples include legal proceedings and tribunals for unfair dismissal, discrimination and even harassment – none of which is welcome in any business.

Genuine or not?


It is very difficult to prove that an illness is not genuine and the employee may be stating one reason for absence to hide another. ACAS (The Government Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) highlights that there can be a conflict in leave time allowances and employees’ needs: some employees take short notice sick leave for personal problems or tasks because annual leave cannot be given at short notice. Therefore, they lie but may have a valid underlying reason for the absence.

Instead of entering the contentious ground of guessing which absences are genuine and which ones are not, it is best to consider all absence as genuine. After all, the employee is absent and therefore the impact to the business is the same regardless of the reason why the absence took place.

Use trigger points to manage absence fairly

The right approach is to introduce trigger points in your absence policy that highlight any pattern of absenteeism that is becoming an issue/ cause for concern. The triggers should pick up recurring short term absence as well as long term absence and accumulated time off. A good combination is to have:

  • a frequency trigger e.g. 3 spells in 12 months
  • a long term trigger e.g. 4 weeks; and
  • a total time off trigger e.g. 4% personal absence level, which for full time staff is the same as 9 absence days per 12 months

The triggers should follow a rolling 12-month period. Previous performance should play a part in the decision making but improvements over a longer period should also be recognised. This gives the employee a chance to redeem their absence record.

Implementing universal triggers across the company ensures that you are treating all staff equally. That way there is less risk of litigation due to discrimination and claims for unfair treatment will become less likely. The emotion is removed from absence management and managers no longer waste their time deciphering if an employee is really ill or not. Instead problem absentees will be dealt with at Return to Work interviews and through the review meetings that should follow when any of the triggers are tripped.

Implement a robust absence policy consistently

Clear improvement targets should be set at the review meetings. In many cases, just the added attention on absence and proper return to work interviews will weed out any employees taking their employer for a ride. However, with proper triggers and consistent application of policy, the employer is in a good position: if an employee is not performing and doesn’t show any inclination for changing or commitment to the job, there will be no controversy in managing them out of the business.

Although looking at an employee’s social networking site may seem like the easiest or quickest way of checking up on dodgy excuses, it is inappropriate to do so, as an ACAS social research paper also explains. If you confront an employee using their Facebook or Twitter posts against them, it is likely to be seen as ‘spying’ or ‘intruding’ as this introduces several issues regarding privacy. If your absence management policies are robust, then the real reason should begin to emerge via Return to Work interviews and absence review meetings without the need to waste time on detective games.

Do not single anyone out

Furthermore, managers should not be looking to single out individual employees. There are general absence management methods that can be adopted to prevent employees being able to pull sickies, but none that can be put upon a single employee just to ‘prove’ their sickness.

As stated, it is best to steer clear of questioning whether an employee’s reason for absence is genuine. Confronting employees on this can only lead to emotional and volatile situations. It puts the manager in a weak standpoint to take things further, where necessary.

Neutral and fact-based absence management

Diagnosing and treating the illness, whether real or imagined, should be left to medical professionals. The consequences of the absence, i.e. the fact that the employee is not fulfilling their contractual duties, is what a manager should focus on. By explaining to the employee that you sympathise with their situation and wish to offer any support and help you can but at the end of the day, you need your employees at work and productive, you can remove the emotion from managing problem absentees.