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Find out sick leave policy before it's too late

Chris Posti
| Sunday, Sept. 2, 2001

Q: How many sick days are 'too many' sick days• So far this year I have missed 7 ½ days (some because I was sick; the rest because my children were). When I called off last week, my boss said no one else calls off as much as I do. That may be true, but when I was hired, she told me there is no set maximum number of sick days, and that employees are just supposed to call off sick when they (or their family members) are sick. There are still a few months left in this calendar year, and I wonder what she will do if I have to call off again, which is probably inevitable since I am a divorced mother of three.

A: Most employers prefer not to establish a specific number of allowable sick days, mainly because doing so tends to make employees feel entitled to using all of them. (They would rather you felt guilty about using them - making it a sort of self-policing mechanism.) However, such a policy creates a gray area subject to wide interpretation. In your case, it sounds as if what you consider 'abuse of the sick days policy' differs from your boss's interpretation, a dangerous portent to your future with the company.

I suggest you sit down with your boss and address the situation now, on a day when you and your children are all healthy. From experience, I can tell you that most supervisors are loathe to deal with discipline issues, even when the issue is something seemingly insignificant. What typically happens is that the boss seethes for months about what he or she perceives is a problem with an employee, but doesn't have the spine to address it head-on.

Over time, the employee, oblivious that there is a problem, does one more time the dreaded thing that has been knawing at the boss for months (in your case, that would be calling off sick one more time). Then, wham! Your kid's strep throat becomes justification for your termination.

Please don't get caught short on this one. Talk with your boss, find out her expectations, and make sure you fall within them. Get a grandma, aunt, or babysitter to fill in for you with the sick kids, and keep yourself healthy, too. Otherwise, your next letter to me will be a query relating to your job search woes.


Q: I own a small, growing business with 17 employees. Since starting this company three years ago, I have never felt the need (or had the time) to implement things like a performance appraisal system or an employee handbook. But as we grow, I know I need to have an action plan for 'human resources' processes, including someday hiring a human resources manager. At what size do you think I'll need to hire someone• Is there a standard•

A: In my experience, here's what usually happens in a small business. In the early years, the company 'gets by' without any human resource policies and procedures in place. People simply make things up as needed. Besides, the place is small enough that the owner can just bark across the cubicles to tell employees anything they need to know.

As time goes by, though, issues pop up that make the owner recognize the need for human resources expertise. Perhaps the owner is getting tired of repeating all the things that should be contained in a handbook. ('One week of vacation in the first year; two weeks of vacation from two to five years of service...') Or maybe the owner is having a hard time hiring and retaining employees because the company's compensation system isn't a system at all, just guesswork, and it's for sure not competitive. Or one day the owner is stunned by a lawsuit that would have never happened if a problem employee had been properly terminated.

Whatever the signs, at some point, the owner decides it is time for a human resources manager. (Usually this light bulb turns on at between 50-100 employees.) The problem is, the owner is rarely willing or able to spend the dollars to hire a qualified, experienced HR manager. Instead, the owner usually taps a current employee (most often an accounting person or the owner's secretary) and 'knights' that person to be the new HR manager. Not having a single day of HR experience, this person, understandably, often fails.

As you have probably discerned, this pattern of misusing talent frustrates me endlessly, and I hope you will not succumb to it. Instead, I suggest you outsource your current limited HR needs to a qualified consultant or freelancer, and when you reach about 100 or 150 employees, hire a full-time person with the credentials to do the job.

Chris Posti heads Posti & Associates, a human resources consulting firm in Pittsburgh. Email your questions to her at chris@postiinc.com .

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