SIck leave and under performance

Handling personal leave and under-performance – tips that work.

Getting sick is a fact of life but what happens when an employee is also starting to slowly under-perform and you’re finding it hard to broach the topics?

This scenario is made all the harder because you know:

  1. If you terminate an employee for taking an entitlement to leave, you’ll face some very stiff consequences (called an ‘adverse action’).
  2. If you manage the employee’s under-performance and in any way make it because of taking leave – there remain stiff consequences again (more ‘adverse actions’ at least).

So what to do?

One thing you cannot do is not address the issue. This is because under-performance and taking excessive leave will impact the business and possibly influence how the rest of the team view you and the business.

The good news is that now you know you’re dealing with behaviours, you can see it will be a conversation that solves the problem for you. The only question you probably have right now is …. how to start the conversation?

First, be curious.

Could it be possible that the under-performance and excessive leave are related or, worse, is it how you’re managing the workforce? You need a plan to find this out pronto!

Planning what you want to say and how to do this in a ‘humane’ way is important throughout this exercise.

The easiest way to get into a humane mindset for any of the following steps is to use the word ‘curious’ when talking about this issue to yourself and the employee. Consider this in terms of the following two statements. Which one would work best if someone were asking you the questions?

  • ‘You’re taking too much leave and I’ve noticed it’s regularly on a Monday. What is going on as it is becoming a problem for the rest of us, our customers are complaining and your work is now starting to suffer? I need to warn you this can’t keep happening and I don’t want to have to discipline you!’


  • ‘I’m curious to know why you might be taking leave regularly on a Monday and whether there is anything I can help you with? I’ve noticed it a few times now and wanted to raise this because it’s not only affecting the workload of others, and our service delivery, but it also seems to be impacting you when you get back and are trying to catch up? I’m thinking there must be something I can do for you – I just don’t know what that might be?’

A word of caution, being ‘curious’ might not last you all the way through a difficult conversation but when you remember it; it can be a powerful verbal life-preserver and will positively change the tone of a conversation!

The 3 step welcome back conversation to discussing performance

1. Welcome the employee back to the workplace

If you’re not doing so already, welcoming any employee back after a period of leave demonstrates they are not just a number in your organisation. It also gives you a chance to make sure there is nothing more serious going on for the employee and to try and identify issues as soon as possible when behaviours have changed.

Start your welcome back to the employee using suggestions like the following – and be curious about exploring any issues:

  • Open with some pleasantries as you would anyone ‘It’s great you’re back and we missed you / were worried you were OK’ etc.
  • Next, find out if there is anything going on to account for the behaviours/excessive leave: ‘I’m curious to know if you’re feeling better and needed to talk about anything?’ or maybe  ‘Is there anything I can do to help you get better ?
  • Genuine care for another person is hard to fake. However, saying ‘I’m curious‘ helps to re-frame your mind from being judgmental to being genuine and open to the other person.
2. Discuss expectations

After opening the conversation, you’ll want to talk about what has been happening in the business and the work that is a priority – reminding the employee you’re here for guidance and help. This step builds on the welcome back and begins to outline it is business as usual before agreeing what is to be done (setting expectations):

  • For example, ‘While you were away [insert tasks and actions] happened and we did [insert actions] which seemed to work?’ 
  • Make sure the employee understands the brief you’ve given them ‘What questions do you have for me about any of this?’
3. Set expectations

The home stretch – clearly confirming the performance expectations you have of the role. This is where you bring together the tasks/actions and the behaviours to achieve the goals from step 2.

  • For example, ‘It’s great you’re back and now it would be helpful to start concentrating on a,b,c that needs to be done by [insert time-frame]. We really need your attention to detail/ability to meet deadlines etc to get back up to speed to meet these timeframes…’.
  • Confirm the employee understands the tasks and their role ‘Let me know if you need any help with any of this of course.  How does that sound?’
  • Note: Concentrate on just a few really important behaviours that have been causing you concern already – and think of this step as ‘coaching’ the employee back into their work and your concerns. It isn’t formal discipline but it could be referenced in the future as a starting point to that process (fingers crossed it isn’t needed though)
One more thing

Keep a record of the conversation. This is a conversation about making sure the employee is aware you’re there to help and what you want to see improve… but if push comes to shove this will also be the starting point to compassionately commence a more formal process for  them to improve. Either way, you’ll be glad you have dates, times and a bit of detail about how you were trying to help should the time come.

And if your employee has personal trouble and needs help?

Be ready for a genuine issue outside of the workplace that has been causing an employee to miss work and affecting their performance. If this turns out to be the case, visit the Australian Government’s webpage listing mental health support services here.

Thanks for reading and click the subscribe button below to keep up to date on articles such as these, links to other resources and our own FREE tools and advice.