I Tried to Discipline My Employee and She Brought Me a Doctor’s Note
Hey Kelly-I'm hoping you can help!
I’m a pretty new team leader, and I manage a team of call center employees in a facility of about 150 employees. One of my team members, Nancy, a two-year employee who in the past has been a mostly reliable performer, has logged in to the phones 10-15 minutes late on several occasions lately. When I asked her about it, she made an excuse that her car has been acting up, said she had to call the mechanic when she got to work. The next time, it was a daycare issue with her granddaughter.
I told her that she needed to log in on time, or I would need to begin the progressive discipline process with her, which at our company means if you don’t improve, you could eventually lose your job. The next time she logged in late, I sent her a meeting notice to come see me two days later, when she was scheduled to work again. When she got there, she handed me a doctor’s note written on a prescription pad that said this:
Due to medical reasons, frequent breaks are needed.
Everyone knows that Nancy is diabetic, but I'm not aware that she has problems from that, and the note doesn't say it. I’m thinking of telling Nancy that since everyone on the schedule needs to be available to take calls, she already has scheduled breaks, and we can’t just give them to her whenever she wants. I'm pretty flexible with all of the team, and I'm better than most team leads at working with them on the scheduling.
And what about the fact that she already told me she was logging in late because of her car, and childcare? I don’t see what that has to do with this doctor’s note. Even though I feel bad for her, to me, it just looks like an excuse for not doing her job.
Can I go ahead and discipline Nancy for logging in late? And what do I do about the doctor’s note? She is working today and I don’t know what to do if she asks for another unscheduled break.
Running a call center is a tough job. I have consulted with many managers who work in this setting, and I know the challenges. You have lots of shifts to cover, and it’s tough when there aren’t enough people to staff the phones. It’s like one of those puzzles with 1,000 pieces. It takes a ton of work to put it together, and if even one piece is missing, the picture doesn’t look quite right. Add to that the stressful work environment and typically low pay, and it’s tough to keep your people engaged and working productively.
Although I’m not a big fan of progressive discipline, because it doesn’t promote trust or generate performance beyond the minimum required for the role, I understand it’s the way your company has chosen to manage its employees. The violations of company policy that have already happened, i.e., logging in to the phones late, don’t disappear because Nancy handed you a doctor’s note. That performance issue could still be addressed, but before you go there, I would encourage you to look deeper.
You said that you feared Nancy was just making excuses, because she had already told you her reasons for logging in late were due to car trouble and daycare woes. But consider her need for privacy, and you may realize that she was reluctant to tell you that her medical condition was why she didn’t log in right away. People have varying levels of comfort with sharing personal information, not to mention that some medical symptoms can be embarrassing in themselves. They also may fear discrimination or losing their jobs.
You mentioned that your work location has about 150 employees, and that Nancy has been working for the company for two years. It may be that her doctor’s note is notice of her need for intermittent Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave. You should notify your human resources department of the situation so that Nancy can be advised of her eligibility for FMLA leave, and given the opportunity to apply for that leave. If approved, the FMLA leave designation will tell you, as her manager, how often and for how long Nancy is approved to be away from work due to her own serious health condition. There are also other reasons why FMLA leave can be approved, including caring for a close family member with a serious health condition. For more information about FMLA leave and employer obligations, take a look at the U.S. Department of Labor’s website.
Even if Nancy is not eligible for FMLA leave, or if what she is requesting is something different than time away from work, her doctor’s note also raises some questions that you will need to explore:
- The note, along with your knowledge that she has diabetes, raises a question whether Nancy may be considered a qualified individual with a disability if this is what her doctor means by "medical reasons." Diabetes will almost always be considered to impact the major life activity of endocrine function, meeting the definition of disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). At the very least, clarification with Nancy's doctor is needed to figure out more information about the "medical reasons" referenced in the note.
- Nancy may be requesting a reasonable accommodation, by informing you she needs “breaks as needed.” It’s reasonable for you to clarify what that request might mean. How often is she likely to need breaks? How long should the breaks typically be? Are these requested breaks from the phones, or breaks from work altogether? More information from her doctor will be needed to clarify what impact her medical problems may be having on her ability to perform the essential functions of her job, and how these breaks will help.
- If you confirm that the medical reasons rise to the level of disability, then engaging Nancy in exploring these questions, through the “interactive process,” is required. Don’t ignore Nancy’s doctor’s note or deny her request for breaks outright, without working with her to understand what she is requesting and how or whether you can help her. If you need help figuring out what an accommodation might look like, consult the Job Accommodation Network (JAN). The JAN website has hundreds of great accommodation ideas that can serve as a starting point for discussion, and their experts can help you one on one, if needed, at no cost.
- If you find after gathering more information that the doctor is recommending regular breaks for snacks and blood sugar monitoring, you will probably find that this situation has been addressed at the call center before, so it’s worth checking with other managers and your HR department to see what has been done in the past. It’s best to find a good solution that allows employees to care for themselves and remain productive, and then implement it consistently.
- Doctors often don’t know very much about their patients’ specific job duties, which is why these types of requests can be overly broad. Sometimes it helps to describe what information you need in a letter, and Nancy can either sign a release giving permission for you to contact her doctor, or she can take the letter to her doctor and request that he or she respond.
- Give Nancy a reasonable deadline for when you need to receive the information, and until you get the clarification you need, it’s best to allow her to take breaks as needed.
- If Nancy is a non-exempt, hourly employee, then these breaks can be considered unpaid if she is not working and not required to remain at her desk. You may allow her to work additional time at the end of her shifts so she can get in a full day’s work.
- If something doesn’t go as planned, like you don’t receive the information you need by the deadline date, always err on the side of being flexible and allowing more time. Send an updated request indicating that no information was received and giving a final deadline. Offer to help Nancy obtain the information needed.
- Document everything you are doing. Engaging in the interactive process is a legal obligation, and keeping copies of all of your written communication in a secure location that will guard your employee’s personal information is key.
For more information on diabetes at work and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), see the EEOC’s question and answer page. The Disability Management Employer’s Coalition (DMEC) is also a very useful resource to help employers handle problems like this one. These are sticky issues, but by trusting and working with your employees, you can be compliant with legal requirements, keep your team members at work, and achieve great business results at the same time. I’ve just scratched the surface, so if you have more questions, be sure to consult with your HR department and attorneys.
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