Dealing Fake Sickies

As an employer you’ve probably questioned the genuineness of an employee taking sick leave from time to time. When time is money, dealing with fake ‘sickies’ deserves some thought, strategy and finesse.

Our staff are entitled to sick leave and no matter how it might feel at times, the vast majority of sick leave is genuine.  However, if an employee is taking sick leave too regularly for what appears to be minor illnesses, or is providing less than robust excuses, there are some tools available to you. 

The Lowdown

We should not treat every instance of sick leave with suspicion.  Employers are required to act in good faith, and should only launch into investigation mode when it is warranted.  For example, enquiries are generally warranted if an employee presents a pattern of absences, such as calling in sick regularly on a Monday, or using an excessive amount of sick leave when the injury or illness is unclear or transient.  It may similarly be warranted if you have evidence of dishonesty, such as seeing an employee at a social or sporting occasion when they claim to be home with a sick child.

We recommend that you require employees to call if they will be off work sick. It’s too easy to send a text and then be non-contactable! By requiring a call to notify absence, you have the opportunity to check on the reason for absence and how long they might be off work. You can also ask for proof, if required.

Under the Holidays Act 2003, an employer can require proof of sickness or injury from an employee. Proof can be requested at any time, but the cost of obtaining that proof must be borne by the employer if the period of sick leave is less than three calendar days. 

If, following a request, the employee does not furnish proof that they are (or a spouse or dependent is) sick or injured, the employer may refuse to pay the employee for that day.

Beyond that, the first step is to communicate with your employee.  It can be helpful if a medical certificate has been supplied with little to no information (which is almost always the case).  While privacy and discretion are undoubtedly important, employers are entitled to ask questions about the reasons for taking sick leave when this impacts their business and puts other employees under pressure.  We recommend the employee’s employment agreement works in conjunction with the employer’s policies to  set the expectation that there will be a conversation. The employer should be precise about the information required and who it will be shared with, and for what purpose.  In doing so, such requests will be reasonable and consistent with the obligation of good faith. 

Holding a return to work meeting after time off (even after just one day of absence) is a valuable tool to:

  • Discuss the reason for the absence and follow up on a medical certificate, if required.
  • Confirm if, and how the absence will be paid.
  • Ensure there are no health and safety implications following their illness/absence.
  • Make sure the absence was not due to an incident and , if it was, ensure processes were followed and discuss ACC.
  • Review total absence – we regularly speak to employers (and employees) who haven’t realised how much time off has been taken until it is in writing in front of them!

Please remember that employees have the right to refuse medical treatment and/or to refuse to share the results with their employer.  However, we would suggest if they take advantage of this entitlement, you may be able to draw certain inferences from the information available to you.

Assessing the evidence

There may be genuine reasons for the employee failing to provide medical evidence requested, so this should not automatically suggest dishonesty.  Regardless of any explanation, the threshold for disciplinary action is unlikely to be met simply because the employee was unable to provide proof.  However, without medical evidence an employer may be entitled to refuse payment, which should act as a deterrent for future ‘sickies’.

Disciplinary action is more likely to be warranted where an employee’s activities during sick leave appear inconsistent with their condition.  Please note, they do not have to be chained to their sick bed in order to be unfit for work, and your assessment must be fair and reasonable. If you see an employee walking down the street while they are on sick leave, they may be on their way to a doctor or a physio appointment. However, if an employee is updating their Facebook with photos from Ruapehu or Kerikeri while they claim to be in bed with the flu, your suspicions will be well-founded and likely defensible. 

Potential disciplinary action

If you have sufficient evidence to show an employee is taking fake ‘sickies’, this may amount to dishonesty and/or misuse of sick leave, which could amount to serious misconduct and justify disciplinary action (including dismissal).  However, before launching into disciplinary action, keep in mind you may need to be able to evidence that a fair and reasonable process was followed. This would include providing the employee with a fair opportunity to respond to the allegations against them, providing them with all relevant information, and giving them time to prepare their response.  The employee is also entitled to obtain support or representation.  The decision-maker should be impartial and only make the decision after hearing from the employee and undertaking any follow-up investigations.  Of course, the employer’s decision must be what a fair and reasonable employer could have done in all the circumstances.

In essence, there are a number of factors which need to be weighed up before taking disciplinary action against an employee on any occasion, and responding to unjustified sick leave entitlement is no exception. Get in touch if you have concerns regarding employee absence.

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