It's unavoidable that your employees will need to take a day off work once in a while. Whether that's due to a family matter or a personal obligation, making accommodations for employees who need to call out occasionally is part of being an understanding and supportive employer. However, when excuses for missing work start to go off the rails, you may be wondering – when and how do you draw the line?
What are some common excuses for missing work?
As an employer or manager, you've likely heard every reason in the book for taking an unplanned personal day. These are some of the most common reasons for missing work:
- Transportation issues. This could be a train delay, traffic, or a car breakdown like a flat tire. If the delays are severe enough, the day may be over before the issue on the road is resolved.
- Illness. Whether your employee has a fever or their child is home with a stomach bug, illness is a valid excuse to call out of work.
- Weather. A bad snowstorm, heavy rain, or another weather event may create unsafe conditions for commuting or inhibit your employees' ability to perform any work outdoors.
- Oversleeping. Alarms can fail to chime for many reasons, and oversleeping long enough can cause some employees to take the day off instead.
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Good excuses for missing work
Time and attendance are certainly key metrics for employee performance, but you may hear from employees that they need to take time off to handle personal matters. These are some good reasons to miss work:
- Health maintenance. Going to a doctor's appointment, undergoing a health screening, and suffering a flare-up of a chronic illness are some valid and important reasons for an employee to miss work.
- Family obligations. Tending to a family member could involve various tasks that require an employee to miss work, such as attending a parent-teacher conference or taking an elderly parent to the doctor.
- A home emergency that needs attention. If a pipe bursts or the roof begins to leak, for example, your employee needs to take care of it as soon as possible.
- Delivery or service window. Sometimes, scheduling a furniture delivery or cable installation during work hours is unavoidable. If this is not a frequent occurrence and you are notified in advance, this is an acceptable reason for your employee to take the day off.
- A death in the family. It is fully understandable when an employee misses work because of a death in the family, such as to attend the funeral, fulfill a religious obligation related to death, or simply grieve in the immediate aftermath. [Read more about bereavement leave policies for your business.]
- Use of PTO. If your company offers paid time off, whether in the form of vacation days or family and sick leave, your employees are entitled to use it within the boundaries of your established PTO policy. Some companies offer unlimited PTO, but an employee must still clear the time off with their manager, of course.
Strange, unusual or bad excuses for missing work
Of course, your employees will occasionally call out unexpectedly. While illness and car trouble tend to be among the most common explanations, it's excuses like having to prepare for their pet's birthday or needing to finish binge-watching their favorite television show that gives employers pause. Here are some atypical excuses employers we interviewed have heard from their employees.
Going on the lam
Michael Reznik, CEO of TriFold, said the strangest excuse he ever received from an employee for missing work was because he had lost faith in the legal system and needed to go "on the lam."
While the excuse seemed ridiculous on the surface, Reznik said that after further questioning, the employee said he had previously testified against some men, which resulted in them being sent to prison. The employee found out the men were getting out on early parole and was afraid of retribution.
"At first, I wasn't sure how to handle it," Reznik said. "It seemed a little far-fetched, but at the same time, I do care about my employees' health and safety. I also had to consider other employees' safety. If some 'rough' guys were going to come to our office looking for him, I really didn't want him to be here."
In the end, Reznik accepted the excuse, and the employee returned to work after a few days. A few months later, he gave the same excuse, left, and never returned to work.
A death in the family – of the same person several times over
A death in the family is a perfectly legitimate excuse for missing work. The same family member dying multiple times is a different story. Ola Wlodarczyk, an HR specialist at Zety, once had an employee who called in on three different occasions with the excuse that their grandmother had died.
"It was obvious the employee was not telling the truth, but we had to be strategic in our response," Wlodarczyk said.
After the employee returned from their "bereavement" leave, they were brought into the HR office and confronted with the situation. Wlodarczyk said they were straightforward with the employee, showing them all the previous requests and reasons, including the other grandmother-death excuses, for calling out of work.
"The employee went completely white," she said. "Still, we gave the employee a chance to tell us their side of the story. Of course, it's possible someone misspoke, or even categorizes someone as a close family member in this way, so we gave them a chance to tell their side of the story before disciplining them."
In the end, the employee admitted that none of their relatives had recently passed away. In addition, Wlodarczyk said they discovered a litany of other false excuses that the employee had made up for missing work.
"It was very eye-opening but a learning experience," Wlodarczyk said. "If we would have gone in and reprimanded the person off the bat, then we would not have uncovered these other lies. So, in the long run, keeping cool certainly helped us."
An unusual injury
In a situation that seems right out of "The Office," Richard Pummell, HR lead for DevelopIntelligence, had an employee call in sick because she had burned her feet. Although this didn't occur on a George Foreman Grill, a la Michael Scott, it was related to cooking.
When the employee returned to work the next day, Pummell said many of the theories he had devised about how exactly her accident occurred were dispelled.
"Unfortunately, the poor woman truly had been cooking dinner barefoot when a large pot of oil she was using for frying splashed hot oil onto her feet as she was moving it," he said. "It had required a trip to the emergency room and the application of some bandages."
Unfortunately, that was just the first of the food-related injuries to befall this employee.
"It wasn't too long after that she called in sick on another Monday," Pummell said. "She'd slipped on a banana peel and had a bad back."
Wild but true excuses for missing work
While some outrageous excuses are obviously made up, others are too ridiculous not to be true.
Multi-cause traffic incident
BJ Enoch, vice president of enterprise accounts for SocialSEO, said that on the morning of an important client meeting, one of his team members texted that he couldn't make it in that morning because he was stuck in traffic after someone hit a deer and their car had caught on fire.
"I'd never had a reason to doubt this team member before and wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, but this was just a bit too much," Enoch said.
Despite his doubts and wanting more answers, Enoch was in the middle of texting the employee to be safe when he received a follow-up message that included a picture of a car in the middle of the highway, on fire, with a deer on the side of the road.
"We chalked it up as uncontrollable, and he made the hours up," Enoch said.
A birthday party for a four-legged pal
Shawn Breyer, owner of Sell My House Fast Atlanta, said he had an employee take off for their dog's birthday because they had to get the party ready.
"As weird as the idea was, they brought in pictures from the party," Breyer said. "They had invited all of their friends and dogs over to the house and actually threw a party."
Goats gone wild
A herd of goats traipsing through a house is an excuse most couldn't even fathom giving. However, that's one Kyle Birkemeier had to give his employer while working abroad.
"I had goats and had to call off work when I came home to find that someone had let them into the house, and they pooped on everything," he said. "My supervisors sure found it hilarious, and eventually, I did as well."
When do excuses for missing work cross the line?
While you may shrug off one outrageous excuse as an abnormality, you have a problem when it starts becoming a regular occurrence.
Jean Paldan, founder and CEO of Rare Form New Media, said she hired someone who gave ridiculous excuses for missing work right from the start of their employment. On what was supposed to be his first day, the new employee called to say his apartment flooded. The next day, his mother, who he said had dementia, had supposedly wandered off, and he had to find her. Over the next four weeks, the employee claimed he couldn't make it to work because he couldn't find his medication, he had norovirus, and he had to be with his pregnant girlfriend, even though it was later determined she wasn't pregnant.
"We at first thought that he was just having a bad time of it with the flood and his mother, then catching the norovirus, and we were supportive," Paldan said. "However, he started to flounder and forgot which lie he had told, and that's when we realized he was a pathological liar. At that point, we decided to let him go."
Needing to take a nap, having to participate in a peaceful Armenian revolution, not wanting to deal with "mean girl" co-workers, and forgetting it was Monday were some of the other uncommon excuses HR reps and bosses said they have received over the years.
How to handle outrageous excuses for missing work
To deal with employees who provide crazy excuses for missing work, it is critical that managers address the situation, according to HR consultant Deborah Woolridge. It is important to address all the reasons for the employee continuing to miss work, even legitimate ones.
Woolridge said having discussions with the employee gives employers a better understanding of what is going on. The employee could be having a personal issue or looking for another job. Woolridge said confronting the situation lets the employee know that their absences aren't going unnoticed.
When a crazy explanation is given, Woolridge said managers should document the situation.
"Managers should keep track by keeping notes with date and time and explanation," she said. "In the past, when I have provided an absence report to employees, or lateness report, I found they were legitimately shocked by the frequency of the lateness."
Failure to address the situation could have a long-lasting impact on your entire organization.
"A company might quickly want to nip ongoing excuses in the bud, because if not addressed, it taints the workplace culture and creates issues with other employees who see this person as getting away with the excuse," Woolridge said.
When it comes to punishment, companies will likely treat the situation differently. Some might discipline the employee, while others may terminate the employee if they are seeing a pattern of not-so-believable reasons for missing work. Established policies that address absences and tardiness can help employers navigate these situations, according to Woolridge.
"You should follow your policy, because if you do not, it is not worth having and [it] creates more issues," she said.
How to track and manage employees missing work
- Categorize excused and unexcused absences. In your attendance policies, you may want to differentiate between excused absences, like illness, and unexcused absences, like a dog birthday party. While an exhaustive list of potential reasons for unexcused absences may not be possible, you can set clear guidelines about the importance of excused absences over unexcused absences.
- Establish clear (and plentiful) sick leave and personal time. If an employee only has the minimally required sick leave and personal time, that simply may not be enough to cover all the life happenings that occur in a year. If this is the case at your company, consider revising your policy to be more favorable for employees.
- Ask for advance notice. Set a policy that your employees must give advance notice (when possible) if they need to take time off. For example, if they know a few weeks in advance that they'll be undergoing a medical procedure, they should give their manager those few weeks of notice.
- Track time and attendance. Good time and attendance software can track who will be at work and when, helping you schedule for adequate staffing and make sure that no employee is abusing company policy.
Stella Morrison contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.