Long-time attendance problem pushes manager to take action

Dear Joan:

One of my direct reports has had an attendance problem throughout her entire history with our company (about nine years). When I took over this position two years ago, I was determined to keep her attendance above acceptable standards. She consistently has no vacation days banked up (or is the negative) and has used twice the normal sick time of other employees during the year. Just this morning she called me with a car problem that will keep her out of the office today and wants me to authorize a sick day for her to use so she doesn’t have to use a vacation day. It has been a part of her goals this next year to bank up vacation days and improve her attendance. She said she didn’t want to lie about the reason for her absence but is instead asking me to approve something that I know is not correct. 

Last year, I called attention to her absences and tracked her days. Despite calling things to her attention there hasn’t been much improvement. She works very hard putting in extra time when needed without being asked but then want to use the time as comp time, since overtime is difficult to get approved.  

She is highly skilled in my particular area and does a great job when she is here. To further complicate things, I may be getting some additional territory in my unit and getting another person reporting to me who will take over some of her duties. So this will make it easier for her to be gone. Also, it is common in our department to be leaving early or coming in late for doctor appointments and such. This is acceptable if you don’t already have an attendance problem and we try to accommodate an employee’s needs to meet personal obligations when necessary.  

How do I take control of this situation? The pattern has been set for many years, but I need to know she is going to be available to do her job and meet her goals. 


It’s time to stop pushing a limp rope. You are the only one who appears to care about this. It’s time for her to take some action. You set a goal for her; she ignores it and suggests you bend the policy. She works a little extra and expects you to give her even more time off as a thank you. Her co-workers are all showing up every day and they manage to plan around their allotted vacation time—I imagine they are disgusted with the double standard that exists. How would you feel putting in a full day’s work, five days a week, while she comes up with the Excuse de Jour? 

I suspect she has been allowed to get away with this below standard behavior because she is a nice person and she is highly skilled. The fact remains that she is below the acceptable attendance standard. Standards are set to keep things fair and equitable for employees and the company. She is failing to meet a fundamental goal of showing up. She has manipulated the system for years and now she is manipulating you.  

If you’re really ready to stop it, here’s how: 

First, decide in advance if you are willing to go to the mat and fire her if she doesn’t improve. If you are hesitant because she is a good worker, consider this: in every case like this I have ever witnessed, the employee was not worth keeping. The damage they do is to the good employees, who show up every day. Your employee has ignored the standard and by not enforcing it, you have made the standard a joke. By giving her a fair warning of the consequences, you are giving her a choice—adhere to the standard like everyone else, or fire yourself. Once you’ve made the decision to enforce the standard, tell your boss and HR the history and lay out your plan and ask them to back you up and help you with documenting the process. 

Pull out her record and copy her tardiness and absenteeism history. I hope there has been documentation and she has been given other written warnings. Call a meeting with her and say, “Mary, this is your record. We’ve discussed it many times. Recently you called and asked me to violate policy and authorize a sick day because you wanted to save your vacation day. You are not meeting your goal of improving your attendance and in fact, you are now expecting me to manipulate the system to accommodate you.  

You are a great worker and you work hard when you’re here but you are not here enough. Putting in extra time isn’t adequate compensation because I have to be able to rely on you and you are simply not dependable. That’s not acceptable.  

I feel it is only fair to tell you what could happen if you don’t improve your attendance during the next six months. You could lose your job. I would hate to lose such a skilled employee but I would have no choice. Our territory is growing and our responsibilities will be increasing and I can’t allow this to continue.  

Over the next six months, you will need to win back my confidence that I can rely on you to be here. That means no unplanned vacation days. That means if you have car trouble or other personal issues, you will need a back up plan to get to work on time. That means you must stay within your allotted sick days and vacation days for the year. If you can’t do that, I’m afraid I will have to let you go. I hope you don’t force my hand.” Write that in memo form and give it to her. Put a copy in her file. 

This “consequences meeting” usually forces the issue. She will either take steps to improve or she will test you and get fired. I suspect her habits are so ingrained that she won’t be able to change. If so, you will need to be ready. (If her back is to the wall and she comes up with an Oscar-winning excuse, and you back down on your consequences, you will have no one to blame but yourself.) Let’s hope she proves me wrong.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
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