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How to Deal with Delicate Workplace Issues

Dear David,

I have a coworker who has FMLA approval (Federal Medical Leave Act), and I think she abuses it. She doesn’t come to work on time. Multiple times she has run out of the office, citing various personal issues—issues not related to her FMLA approved issues.

We have all agreed as a team that if we are not able to be on time, or need to leave early, or have an appointment, we will tell each other by text or in person. She has only followed through on this once. She might tell someone in leadership, but then leadership doesn’t let the team know. It is an ongoing problem. I have met with her and described the gap between expectation and her behavior. I cited ten instances of when this has occurred. She still takes no responsibility. Leadership members are aware, but they avoid conflict and have asked me to hold her accountable. I have no official authority. What is my next step?


Dear Unauthorized,

Your situation sounds very frustrating. Your coworker is not taking responsibility, your leaders are not stepping up, and you’ve tried to hold her accountable with no success. I admire your patience and resolve.

I want to help you. I’ll share a few ideas. However, I’m not optimistic that your coworker will change unless her managers require it, and it doesn’t sound as if they will. Let’s consider the various aspects of your situation.

FMLA Statute. The purpose of the FMLA statute is: “To balance the demands of the workplace with the needs of families . . . , and to allow employees to take reasonable leave for medical reasons . . . ” To accomplish this purpose, it permits, “Up to 12 workweeks or up to 480 hours of job-protected unpaid leave for family and medical reasons during a 12-month period.”

Notice two points: The statute assumes a balance between the needs of workplaces and families—that both will need to absorb some side effects for the greater good. Second, it puts a time limit on the side effects a workplace needs to absorb.

Your Leaders. It sounds as if your leaders believe your coworker’s actions are acceptable—a side effect they expect to absorb as a part of the FMLA statute. And they expect you and your team to absorb or manage the side effects as well. I’d like to raise a few questions related to this:

    1. Ask yourself what you really want long term—for yourself, your coworker, and the team. For example, if you take a long-term view, say two years out, will your coworker’s FMLA issues go away? Will she return to being a good coworker? Basically, is this a short-term issue?
    2. Ask yourself whether you agree with your leaders—that the problems you are experiencing are within the scope of the FMLA’s broad intent—and whether the legal risks of confronting the problems outweigh the costs.
    3. Your leaders would like you and the others on your team to backfill for your co-worker while she is on leave. Is this possible? Or do you think your leaders need to take additional steps, such as hire a temporary worker to fill in? If your team needs short-term help, document the need and take it to your leaders.

Reflecting on these questions, I hope, provides you greater insight and clarity regarding the situation.

Yourself. Your frustration could easily get you into trouble. Remember, you don’t have your leaders’ support. They say they want you to hold your coworker accountable, but I don’t buy it. Here is my story: I think they are mostly saying that they won’t be the ones to hold her accountable—perhaps for fear of violating FMLA statutes. My guess is they want you to focus on getting the work done, while avoiding conflicts and any legal liabilities. The more you make an issue of your colleague’s behavior, the more your leaders may come to see you as the problem.

But don’t let my story prevent you from speaking up. If I were you, I’d check out my story with your leaders, taking care to make it safe for them, so they share their honest perspective.

Let’s suppose you decide you need to live with this situation for the next few months. How do you get your heart right? You don’t want to feel resentment toward your coworker or your leaders. This resentment won’t help you be a better person and is likely to leak out in your words and actions.

I’ll offer a few ideas, but I’m not sure which, if any, will work for you. First, try to identify and empathize with your co-worker’s situation. Look for what you can respect about her. For example, it sounds as if her life is difficult in many ways, and yet she is trying to stay employed. Second, tell yourself that this situation is limited in time. When you look back at it five years from now, it won’t matter. Third, focus on being the person you want to be. Be a role model for caring and patience. Use this circumstance as a test to demonstrate to yourself who you really are.

Your Coworker. Drawing on skills from Crucial Accountability, you could address your coworker’s motivation and ability. I would do so not with the intent to change your coworker’s short-term actions, but to make sure that when she completes her FMLA leave, she returns as a valued member of your team.

  • Motivation: Should you address the problem as a matter of motivation, I worry your coworker will feel excluded and punished by the team. That would violate the whole purpose of FMLA and could create long-term damage to her relationship with the team. Ask yourself what you and your team can do to let her know she is still a valued member of your team. She needs to know that her team is there for her in her time of need.
  • Ability: If you approach the problem as a matter of ability, ask yourself what you and your team can do to backfill for your coworker. Are there ways you can help her stay updated on information she misses? Can you extend her a lifeline or job partner who makes sure she doesn’t get left out or left behind?

Again, I respect your actions, your patience, and your persistence. I hope some of these suggestions help.

Best of luck,

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10 thoughts on “How to Deal with Delicate Workplace Issues”

  1. Grizzlybearmom

    I’m going to give you two sides of this: 1. You have no idea why this employee requested and was APPROVED for FMLA. No I would not tell you if I had frequent PAINFUL urinary tract infections requiring doctor and pharmacy visits and medication, or cancer treatment, or a dying mother, etc., because such information can be used against me in instances like “she’s sick and not qualified for COO”, etc. Because this is anonymous I can reveal that my DOCTOR told me not to tell anyone about why I needed such leave, because it’s none of their business. (I had lost SEVERAL nieces and nephews simultaneously in an attack, and their father and mother were on suicide alert. I cried for two weeks. Do you think that my discussing it with the office b, b, b, witch keeping a book on me and carrying tales to my co workers and leadership is going to support my returning to work more quickly? What would leadership think of that?) Also, since when must employees explain their absence to one another? As long as she is producing her 20% of the work, it’s none of your business. 2. WHY won’t leadership hold her accountable? If they don’t have the backbone to do this, do you expect them to support you, or abandon and even punish you if things turn sour? What do you think the employee who see this as “Unauthorized violating my privacy by inquiring into my FMLA situation, keeping a book on my absences and discussing it with my co workers and leadership”

    1. Anna D

      Exactly (with one exception). An employee does not need to inform anyone of the nature of their FMLA qualifying condition (excepting the paperwork) and they may have more than one condition or situation that qualifies. It’s not up to their peers, or even direct management, what is a qualifying situation.

      I do believe you (Grizzlybearmom) misunderstood the expectation the team had of communicating schedule exceptions. This sounds like a simple courtesy to everyone and doesn’t require disclosure of the nature of the absence. My team may do this to know when someone’s work does or does not need to be covered. However, if these types of absences already require notification of management, I think the team should go to them and request that they be notified when someone is out. In an emergency situation, multiple notifications is an unnecessary burden.

    2. Mary Kersten

      FMLA is FAMILY and Medical Leave Act.

      1. davidmaxfield

        Oops! Of course it is. Sorry we missed that.

    3. davidmaxfield

      I agree with you, wholeheartedly! The conditions for Family and Medical Leave are intended to remain confidential. It’s not appropriate for other employees to second-guess whether it’s appropriate in any given case.

      I think the questioner believes that his/her co-worker is taking advantage of the statute by taking more leeway than she should. I tried to suggest options with that in mind.

  2. Karleen Booth

    This was very informative.

  3. Cliff Spoonemore

    This still sounds like the expectations have not been defined and agreed upon by both sides. FMLA was granted for cause and treatment. The Doctor has to sign off that a patient can return to work part-time for a given period, then evaluated and then determined if full-time work is called for.

    It would be between the employee and the Supervisor to agree as to what time commitment is part-time and for how long, at say 20 hours per week. At the end of that period then a new set of expectations is agreed upon. Could be the same 20 hours or increased to 30 hours but still following the Doctors limit of part-time work. When the Doctor says the employee is cleared for full-time work then a final set of expectation is agreed upon and that your FMLA is soon to be terminated for this medical case. Should there be a relapse, then we start over with a whole new application of the FMLA approval process.

    In this case HR may be your friend and can act as a third party adviser to either party. Keeping private issues private and still sharing the needs of the company and the team. HR may not give you what you want to hear, but you will also know if the company and you are staying within the limits of FMLA.

    My duties fall in this same range of little authority, but plenty of responsibility for the team mission. My only case of FMLA was simple and the person wanted to come back to work ASAP. My case is no where close to this one, but I had to follow the FMLA rules with HR.

  4. Diane Simmons

    You are likely not privy to all the details of the FMLA, nor should you be. So you do not have the information to accurately judge whether her absences are related or not. You also likely do not know if she is using personal vacation or comp time for the absences. Since you are not in her management, she is not obligated to report to you any details of her absences. If she is in a stressful situation she has other things to worry about than someone she does not report to. My suggestion is that you be supportive during this critical time, and offer to help her out in any way you can, rather than making her life harder. Possibly approach the “late to work” issue as “I could help you out better if I knew when you were going to be late.” It’s also quite likely that management really just cares about you getting the work done, and really doesn’t want to be bothered with the situation.

  5. Alison

    The liability also lies in how this employee, using FMLA, is responsible to report their absences for tracking in a PTO system or timecard. The company is responsible for tracking, and that it is being implemented properly by the company. After all it is a Federal and State mandate. If the Company is not doing their due diligence, the employee could claim they didn’t take the time they did and abuse it or even sue for wrong doing and the company can’t protect its’ self.

    I have intermittent FMLA for two family members and I have to report to HR and account on my Attendance program when I take FMLA unpaid or paid via PTO for each record. I have the 480 hours to use for both in 12 weeks. I was even sick my self this year and had FMLA for me – I had three cases going.

    Yes, all this person needs to do is give reasonable notice to their manager – no need to explain anything – that they will need FMLA on a date or if it is urgent, no notice is needed but they still need to inform the manager before they leave, it is FMLA related. The manager can only state that this person had to leave early to the team. The manager could file the reported of FMLA time on behalf of the employee and to note if it was unpaid or if PTO was used to suppliement.

    If the person had FMLA for say a bowel issue and they come down with pneumonia or broke their leg, they can’t use FMLA for the original bowel condition approved FMLA. They actually have to apply for FMLA for the new condition . FMLA is not a carte blanch for an employee to be absent or leave early for any other reason than what condition they applied for. This I would be managed by HR in the best situation as it does involve special forms and confidential personal information.

    I remember reading a story about a man who took FMLA for his wife who had cancer; to care for her. Their car died and he needed that to get her to treatment. He took an FMLA day to drive 4 hrs away to pick up a used car he bought. It was discovered he had done that. His FMLA was terminated because that was considered abuse. The FMLA was for the physical care of his wife and not to buy a car.

    If this person is just running out and not reporting time as FMLA for this condition, that is an issue for the company and employee. How can the company track that and be compliant? In my company if an employee calls in and fails to claim it as FMLA, it will be marked as a regular absence and PTO is used. The responsibility does fall on the employee to be honest that it is condition related. The Company has every right to demand some accountability in reporting the time used. That does not break the FMLA laws.

  6. How to Deal with Delicate Workplace Issues

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