We are a very small office and work directly with customers who call in and walk in. This is not the type of job you can do from home & customers expect assistance in a reasonable period of time the same day (understandably).

The owner is very generous and understanding. Our office hours are 9am-5pm Mon thru Fri. Each person works 4 days per week (7 hours a day) and gets 1 paid day off each week (in addition to normal PTO). This is a dream schedule that I’ve never seen anywhere else. Each staff person has a scheduled day off during the week.

With between 2-3 people off most days and add in staff PTO, it can be a little stressful at times and staff being here when they are supposed to be is very important.

In our business, most have to be professionally licensed and some do not. We have an unlicensed staff person who has been here 1 ½ years who calls out a lot with sick kids when her unlicensed counterparts are also out on their scheduled days off or on vacation. This leaves us with either 1 or no unlicensed staff, so we have to pull a licensed person off of their job to work the unlicensed staff jobs. This is upsetting clients, putting everyone behind and causing resentment amongst the other staff. I should note that this is not the type of job we can hire a temporary worker to do as even the unlicensed positions take at least 2 months to train.

We have been understanding and even allowed this staff person to bring their 2 kids to the office (as long as they aren’t contagious) from time to time. We have never told her she cannot take time off. This unlicensed person was hired with the promise of consideration for licensing in the future (no guarantees) but we are rethinking this due to issues with dependability. We have already had to meet with this person several times to address frequent tardiness, work ethic, too much time on her cell phone (with improvement for a time and then back to the same behavior).

As a mother, I completely understand that kids get sick and you can’t plan for that. However, as a co-worker, this person is causing a lot of issues by frequently calling out when counterparts are off. We are a small office. We can’t afford to hire another person that would sit around doing nothing when she is here. We can’t offer childcare in office. This isn’t a work from home type of job. We can’t offer different hours as we are only open 9-5 M-F (she already only works 4 days a week but is paid for 5). We can’t hire a temp due to the amount of training needed.

We are trying to come up with a solution other than letting her go. I would call her an “adequate” employee, not stellar, doesn’t go above and beyond and pretty much just does the minimum she is asked to do with occasional issues as noted above.

Owner plans on sitting down and discussing this with her but wanted some ideas that will help. This is a tough situation, and we are racking our brains to find a solution to keep this employee. I think the owner should talk to her and let her know that she is no longer being considered for licensing because of this but if things improve we may reconsider. Then see if that solves the problem.

We are located in Texas if that helps. Are we missing something that we should consider? Thanks in advance for your thoughts.

Edited to add: this isn't really an issue with sick kids, it's more "should we keep an employee who can't (for whatever reason) be here when we need them?" I included the kids part because I truly understand her situation & sympathize. But we can't run an office with no one here AND we are alienating other staff who work their butts off to be here. Clients are getting tired of hearing "we are shorthanded" and some are leaving us because of the lack of staff. Maybe it's just a case of this not being anyone's fault, but it's just not the right job for her at this time in her life.

  • 12
    Is this problem your job to solve? If individuals are absent and are unable to perform their job, replace them, if it’s your job to solve the problem you describe. However, what I read, is an individual who is stressed by the job. Thats your boss’s job to solve. There are enough employees that want a job that are more than “adequate” at their job.
    – Donald
    Commented Dec 28, 2023 at 18:01
  • 20
    Is there a reason why you don't just hire someone and start training them now instead of waiting for the day she's no longer going to be there (either because she's fired or she quit?). Often bringing on a potential replacement will make them take things more seriously, or cause them to find another job so you don't need to fire them. If you can't afford to hire someone part time to cover her absences, you really can't afford to keep employing her...
    – ColleenV
    Commented Dec 28, 2023 at 19:13
  • 11
    "We are a small office. We can’t afford to hire another person that would sit around doing nothing when she is here" - this sounds precarious; what's your plan for if someone else gets "hit by a bus" and is long-term sick or never coming back, and you can't hire a temp and have to wait 2+ months of hiring and training for another employee and you've still got this woman to deal with as well? Commented Dec 29, 2023 at 17:56
  • 2
    I was confused. In the UK, people call in sick [i.e. phone into the office] and are called out from home to do work (eg fix a fault out of hours). I'd prefer "unexpected absence" or something to go in the question title, but I don't know what would work on both sides of the Atlantic. Commented Dec 29, 2023 at 18:12
  • 2
    We are trying to come up with a solution other than letting her go - WHY?
    – deep64blue
    Commented Dec 30, 2023 at 0:22

8 Answers 8


We are trying to come up with a solution other than letting her go. I would call her an “adequate” employee, not stellar, doesn’t go above and beyond and pretty much just does the minimum she is asked to do with occasional issues as noted above.

If they were otherwise a great employee and the only issue with the absence due to their children being sick, you could maybe work something out by giving them a more flexible or part time role, and changing your scheduling/their workload so them being off caused less issues. But it's pretty clear from what you've posted that they're not a great employee.

So I'll be blunt - one of the big mistakes that small businesses often make is continuing to employ people far longer than they should, because they want to be "nice" and don't like firing people. And it can have a massive negative impact on the business, cause a lot of issues, and result in the good members of staff getting pissed off and leaving.

So if we look at what you've posted here: you have an employee who "does the minimum she is asked", has received several warnings about "frequent tardiness, work ethic, and too much time on their cell phone", and who's frequent absences are "upsetting clients, putting everyone behind and causing resentment among other staff". From what your said in your edit, you've already lost clients because of this, and are likely to lose more.

And I'd invite you to think about how this looks to those other members of staff who "work their butts off" for your business. They're having to deal with extra stress and workload to try and accommodate and employee who, even when they do turn up, is doing the bare minimum and has a poor work ethic. They're working in an environment where they're frequently understaffed (which is extra stress), and worrying about their own jobs because they see you're losing clients. And they're looking at the business owner who looks like they're too weak and timid to do their job and deal with it.

Your boss clearly cares about this employee and wants to help them. But how do you think the rest of your employees are feeling right now? Do they feel that their boss supports them and is looking out for their interests and livelihood? And how much longer do you think they'll stick around and keep putting in that extra effort?

Ultimately, you're bending over backwards with a "very generous" contract, and trying to find ways to keep employing someone who is taking advantage of you. It sucks, and it's never a nice conversation to have - but if you want a small business to survive sometimes you need to grasp the nettle and fire people. Or you can let this person drag the business down, and you'll end up losing more customers and good employees in an effort to try and be the "nice boss".

  • 10
    Having sick kids is not necessarily something you do to take advantage of your employer. Commented Dec 28, 2023 at 20:12
  • 8
    @ThorbjørnRavnAndersen I never said that it was. Did you miss the part of OPs post where they said the employee had received multiple warnings for "frequent tardiness, work ethic, too much time on her cell phone"?
    – Gh0stFish
    Commented Dec 28, 2023 at 20:29
  • 19
    @ThorbjørnRavnAndersen I think it makes sense as one question, because the two separate issues within it are related. The employee's kids being sick isn't their fault, but it's hurting the business and the business need to find a way to manage it. For a great employee, the business should be more willing to make accommodations even if they hurt a bit in the short term - but that doesn't sound like the case here.
    – Gh0stFish
    Commented Dec 28, 2023 at 20:40
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    This is based on the assumption that a business should not only aim to have exclusivly stellar great employees but that this is a realistic goal to achieve. It's not. From a purely business perspective this employee is clearly not ideal but you also have to consider first the cost to train a new employee and second the probability that the new employee will actually be better than the old one.
    – quarague
    Commented Dec 29, 2023 at 8:26
  • 11
    @quarague for a company doing the bare minimum for its employees I'd agree, but it sounds like this company offers stellar benefits, so expecting high quality employees becomes a lot fairer (and more likely)
    – Erik
    Commented Dec 29, 2023 at 14:45

I think you've got two problems here:

First, you don't have enough flexibility in your work. Things need to be done today, no matter how many staff are available. Either you have people sitting doing nothing or you let down customers when there's more work than you can handle. You present this as an issue when people are off work, but I suspect you also have quiet and busy periods. Ideally you'd find a way to buffer the work, so low priority things can be left a day or two until a quiet time. It's worth investigating what your competitors do, to see if there are options you've missed. The alternative is to have a more flexible work force, as is common for bar or wait-staff. You have a pool of people that work when as necessary.

The second problem is that you have an employee who is only available part-time, but you're expecting full-time work. Either replace them, or switch them to a part-time contract.

As you're already working a 4-day week, you are already part of the way to part-time working, with people only working some of the time. The next step is to find people who are happy working 2-3 days per week, and offer overtime for people to work on their day off when you're short-staffed.

This does involve more training (although that gives you a larger pool of replacements when someone leaves) but you should save money by only paying people when you need them.

  • 3
    Yeah, “we’re going to have to make the position part time so we can have multiple” is a common solve here that could drive behavior change (loss of earnings and maybe benefits). “We need someone here full time, that’s either you or half you and half someone else.”
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Dec 30, 2023 at 14:37

It sounds like you have two separate issues here:

  1. Poor professional behaviour when working ("frequent tardiness, work ethic, too much time on her cell phone")
  2. Frequent time off for sick children

My personal take is that you should largely ignore (2) - as you say, people can't control when their children get sick. Sure, they may end up taking more days off due to that than other members of staff but being prepared to handle that/work around it makes you an ethical employer who helps otherwise marginalised people remain in the workforce.

(1) on the other hand you should absolutely deal with, but that's just bog standard performance management which every company everywhere deals with. Just make it clear the behaviours you need changing are those which happen while your co-worker is present in the office, not anything to do with the time she spends looking after her children.

  • 4
    OP made it clear that the time they spend off work due to sick kids is a problem.
    – Or4ng3h4t
    Commented Dec 28, 2023 at 17:26
  • 9
    @Or4ng3h4t - Sure - but my experience is that if you are an otherwise exemplary employee, people understand that kids of a certain age get Sick regularly - when they change rooms/age brackets at Daycare, when they first go to school, when they change classes etc. And trust me - No parent wants sick kids. Commented Dec 28, 2023 at 17:59
  • 2
    @Or4ng3h4t OP made it clear that they are making it a problem. That is not the same thing as it actually being a problem. Commented Dec 28, 2023 at 21:55
  • 1
    @PhilipKendall I don't really get your latest comment. Are you implying that the company is making a problem out of nothing with that comment? [your answer seems otherwise, though, so I'm confused] OP clearly described the negative implications of the colleague's frequent call out to the business.
    – justhalf
    Commented Dec 29, 2023 at 15:17
  • 1
    @PhilipKendall - It sounds like the employer is supporting a working parent. However, the quality of the employees work, is substandard even when they are there.
    – Donald
    Commented Dec 29, 2023 at 17:05

Owner plans on sitting down and discussing this with her but wanted some ideas that will help. This is a tough situation, and we are racking our brains to find a solution to keep this employee. I think the owner should talk to her and let her know that she is no longer being considered for licensing because of this but if things improve we may reconsider. Then see if that solves the problem.

If you do that you can also just let her go. Just "not licensing her" will not solve your problem (that she is very unpredictable beyond the fluctuation you are set up to statistically handle), and neither will it solve hers (Which probably is related to salary/employ ability)

There are three steps:

  • Check if it is economically viable at all for you to accept the PTO (that depends on your margin) if you manage it in an ideal way?

  • can you, without hurting other employees or you long term business interests practically accommodate for this?

  • check with her what change of function or future prospect she would be willing to accept.

I see two essentials way to handle it

  • have more people on standby (-> economically viable?) to ensure customer satisfaction

  • find a niche which can be done at any time (i would imagine you have internal support functions) and has no problem in waiting for half a day (if that requires the license, not licensing her could be counterproductive)


You have a business problem regarding filling the role regardless of the excellence of your colleague.

If everything goes well with your colleague she will become licensed and the present unlicensed role will need to be filled. It looks from your question that the role de facto needs additional coverage right now.

What are the constraints/levers for solving the problem with the inadequately filled role in general?

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    – Community Bot
    Commented Dec 29, 2023 at 2:00
  • but that employee is not "excellent"...
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Dec 29, 2023 at 8:12
  • 2
    @SolarMike, as he says "regardless of the excellence" (or not). The OP is clear the employee is "adequate" - I think what that means in context is that the employee works as could normally be expected, save for the attendance issues. The grading is mentioned to emphasise that there aren't factors in the employee's performance - such as speed or skill - to clearly compensate for the unreliable attendance.
    – Steve
    Commented Dec 30, 2023 at 18:00

The essential problem is that looking after children is a form of work in itself. It takes time and effort, and demands availability.

For the vast majority of women, full-time employment as well as doing the work of motherhood is overly stressful which affects both their enjoyment and performance of each, and except for the most squalid economic times in history it has not been a common arrangement.

Living also takes money and effort in its own right, and if you're on a low wage to begin with, there are often additional demands on your time that wouldn't exist if you were paid more (such as having to bargain hunt in the shops, or to use public transport instead of a car), and there are fewer outlets for leisure that make work feel worthwhile and keep spirits high.

I don't know whether your employee can be reasonably regarded as low-waged, but it's certainly plausible that they are not earning a breadwinner's wage, and therefore have less latitude to arrange their lives in ways that dovetail around work.

If you have accurately identified that the employee's children are genuinely sickly a lot (i.e. there are legitimate mothering reasons for absence, it's not just an excuse), then the situation with this employee probably is what it is, and you'd simply have to decide whether to accept and work with sloppy availability and tiredness, or (if the laws of your jurisdiction allow) sack her.

You've already made clear that the working hours of this job are fixed, so it would appear that there isn't any possibility of asking her to make up lost time.

It's very unlikely that explicitly withdrawing the prospect of licensure will cause any positive change. Most likely, you'll just add stress and reduce work performance.

I don't think her co-workers will necessarily be resentful of her. Carrying such employees, especially in a generous rather than sullen mood, can be a sign to others that they have a good employer. But on the other hand, they won't forgive you for allowing the workplace to become persistently short-staffed and overwhelmed.

It sounds like you're expecting some kind of behaviour change or Herculean effort, but I would dismiss those as fantasies. A full-time working mother is already inherently rendering a large effort, and it's very unlikely she can change her availability.

I also wouldn't assume a job share on a part-time wage will improve things either, unless she is subsidised at home by a breadwinner, because most people can't survive on a part-time wage and you're undermining all the relevant factors even further.

You either accept you're employing a mother and what comes with it, and integrate your operation around the constraints, or you don't employ mothers. There isn't really a third way.

  • All mothers are not equal - some are more equal than others…
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Dec 31, 2023 at 0:37
  • 1
    @SolarMike, I get the reference to Orwell, but not quite sure what you mean in this context?
    – Steve
    Commented Dec 31, 2023 at 13:00

Generally it's best to stay out of other peoples business when it's not part of your role.

This women has issues, understandable ones and work is not a priority for her, it's just a way to make ends meet. A good portion of the workforce is in a similar situation to her. But that's not your problem, it's the companies problem. I'd advise you to leave it to your boss to handle, there is no positive potential in it for you.

  • 8
    This is a tough situation, and we are racking our brains to find a solution to keep this employee. from this and similar sentences, sounds like the OP is actively involved in the situation - maybe asked to give advice - even if it's the boss' ultimate responsibility. Commented Dec 28, 2023 at 23:05
  • 12
    My point is that the OP seems be getting asked for advice. You however state that "it's none of your business". Which would often be true in this type of situation, but not necessarily here, not if she has been asked help figuring out if there are alternatives to firing the person. Commented Dec 28, 2023 at 23:20
  • 6
    Someone in this company needs some good suggestions for this issue and this is a good question for this site. Whether OP is actually that person is not entirely clear from the question but it is not really relevant for writing useful advice here.
    – quarague
    Commented Dec 29, 2023 at 8:30
  • 1
    I don't see how you can honestly respond to the OP's request for advice by offering the advice that you wouldn't offer advice to someone requesting advice. Is this a joke of some sort?
    – ruakh
    Commented Dec 29, 2023 at 16:27
  • 3
    One thing that does support this answer though: if the OP isn't directly responsible for firing decisions and she is known to have participated in this one, her involvement in firing this employee may make her unpopular with the other employees ("She had Sue fired because Sue's kids were sick!"). That is not a negligible consideration, even if holding that judgment seems like it would be unfair from the Q as stated. So, I'll upvote on that basis: reminding OP of risks is helpful. Commented Dec 29, 2023 at 21:36

Have you, or the owners, considered redefining what that 1 PTO day a week can be used for?

Perhaps the problem would cease to exist if a person putting in minimal effort were to learn that the first sick day they take off in a week is their "PTO" day - which they then have to come in and work on if they take another day off.

How much this is enforced, or even if it stays in effect after the person leaves is a totally different consideration.

  • 1
    "a person putting in minimal effort" - there's no real grounds from reading the question to think that a full-time working mother is putting in minimal effort. Also, the seeming issue is the level of staffing on specific days - if you needed a firefighter on Thursday, there's no point getting him on Friday instead.
    – Steve
    Commented Dec 31, 2023 at 13:04
  • 1
    @Steve It's how I read "I would call her an “adequate” employee, not stellar, doesn’t go above and beyond and pretty much just does the minimum she is asked to do with occasional issues as noted above."
    – traktor
    Commented Dec 31, 2023 at 23:10

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