Tech & Work

How to help a good employee overcome problems

What do you do when one of your best employees has fallen into bad habits such as frequent absences and tardiness? These guidelines from seasoned HR pros can help you understand the problem and take steps to retain the worker.


Let human resources manager and technical recruiter Tim Heard find the answers to your HR questions. Tim shares hints and tips on a host of HR issues in this Q&A format.

Q: How do you deal with an employee who shows up late every day and is often absent due to depression? This issue is real and immediate for me because this person is my most talented and otherwise responsible employee, and I don't want to lose him. He was divorced a few years ago, but the trouble persists, and I think his problems may have more to do with his own ambivalence about his work than the divorce. He's under medical care for depression, according to an extremely brief note from his doctor, who said his depression (and his medication) is contributing to his tardiness. Apparently, this key employee is miserable until he finally gets to work, and then he seems stable and productive.

At this point, we have agreed to a 9 A.M. start time, but the guy is still often late. He has already used up his sick days for the year. Is it time to go to a 30-day plan, and at what point do we just fire him? What can we do next to avoid this?

When and how to take action
A: There are two ways to address the situation you describe.

The first strategy is explained by Deb Whitworth, the vice president of human resources at GHS Data Management.

“You need to ask his doctor to be more specific in terms of what exactly you need to accommodate. To the extent that you provide accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), [the employee] still is required to meet the schedule demands. Follow the doctor's guidelines—the 9 A.M. start time fits in here I'd think—and, beyond that, provide progressive discipline that talks about the end result, not the cause (the depression), but the outcome, which is being late to work and not meeting the schedule requirements.”

Ann Edwards, the director of human resources at Lab-Volt Systems, echoed this sentiment:

“The brevity of the doctor's note probably means that it omitted certain specifics which the employer needs to know before making an informed decision on how to proceed. Are there any medical restrictions on hours of work per day/week? What would the medically recommended daily start time be? For how long a period of time would such accommodation be required? Once these parameters have been defined in writing by the…physician, the employer can then assess such issues as reasonable accommodation and undue hardship. If accommodation is made and the employee subsequently violates the agreed-upon hours, standard company disciplinary procedures should be followed.

"The concern that they have related to the Americans with Disabilities Act which, in very basic terms, states that if someone has a disability, the company must make a reasonable effort to accommodate the disability," Edwards said. "From their perspective, though, you would seem to have done that, or perhaps are well on your way toward doing that, whether the man’s depression qualifies as a disability or not." (I will note here that none of us intend to give legal advice, and movement toward termination might work best if done along with the consultation of an attorney.)

Basil Rouskas is the president of Basil Rouskas, Inc., and head of a training firm specializing in the development and retention of the knowledge worker. Since his company’s focus is on retention of skilled workers, it is no surprise that he suggests brainstorming ways to retain the employee:

“Some of the possible outcomes could be a telecommuting arrangement in the morning hours, a change in status from employee to contractor or consultant, a willingness to participate in a transportation pool with other employees, etc. I would suggest shifting from the 'obeying the regulations' mind-set to one of finding ways to keep brilliant people who are assets and contribute to the organization goals. Policies and regulations are useful as tools for equity and compliance. When they do not serve their purpose or are subordinated to a bigger picture, they need to either be applied contextually or the situation needs to be altered so that a creative coexistence of rules and exceptions is made possible.”

Theresa Dowd, former director of professional services for GTS/Ebone who managed employees around the globe, agrees with Rouskas.

“As a manager, I have always felt that as long as my team gets their work accomplished, I never cared what time they came or left," Dowd said, "as long as the customers were covered.”

This is an approach that is being taken by more and more high-tech companies. It is also the type of policy that is becoming commonly expected by the kids getting out of college today. They don’t plan on punching a clock like their parents may have done. They work hard, often long, hours but expect to be treated as professionals who are able to manage their own schedules and workload.

Concerning the employee in question, it seems as if you don’t have a lot of latitude regarding this problem. You have a policy in place, and you need to adhere to it. To do otherwise could very well lead to morale problems among your other employees, since they undoubtedly are the ones who have to pick up the slack when he’s absent or late to work.

Hopefully as you begin the disciplinary process, it will shock your employee into a new frame of mind. However, you might also want to check to see if your company has an employee assistance program. Such a program, or other mental health program, might be able to help the employee in dealing constructively with his emotional issues.

In the long term, you might want to consider adopting a policy similar to Dowd’s, focusing on productivity and customer satisfaction. A cookie-cutter approach to management isn’t always the right one. What works for one group will not necessarily work for another. For instance, if you’re managing a help desk, you simply cannot afford to allow your employees to come and go as they like. Employee schedules must be dictated by the needs of the customer.

Discipline and documentation
If your efforts fail and you are forced to discipline an employee, be sure to follow these guidelines:
  • Make a habit of documenting attendance and other problems as you go along. Don’t wait until there’s a problem. Many systems today have the ability to generate reports to simplify the task. The alternative is to keep calendars and drop folders for each employee.
  • In addition to documenting problems, you need to be thorough about documenting coaching and counseling sessions, formal and informal. You may need this information should the problem escalate.
  • Always, always, always keep your HR contact in the loop regarding disciplinary situations. Do this before you act, not after.
  • Be consistent with the application of the policy.

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