We are a small (~20 employees) company in the US. We are a manufacturing environment and most jobs have to be completed on the shift they are scheduled - the work isn't something that can be made up for another day.

One of our employees has become a single parent. There have been a lot of absences (up to 5 a month) over the last year and a half as he had a lot of breakup drama with his (now) ex and gained custody of their two young children. We ended up arranging for him to work a special shift (come in an hour and a half later than others on the shift) to accommodate his new childcare arrangements.

While all the drama-related absences seem to be resolved, over the last several months he has been calling in about every other week, usually for one or the other child being sick. (Less often for himself being sick, though that has happened a couple of times, too, and once the paid daycare provider canceled on him because she was sick.)

The reason is understandable, but as a small manufacturing company having to scramble to cover for him so frequently is really a strain. It seems like we have to choose between continuing to live with the frequent unplanned absences or telling the employee he isn't a good fit for this position anymore and good luck finding a new job. Both options suck. Are there any other paths that might work for both the business and the employee?

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    I don't think you are asking the right question. Is one sick day a fortnight really that excessive for a single parent? In many countries, that level of leave would be legally protected as your minimum rights.
    – Scott
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 2:41
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    @Scott regardless, sick days cannot be seen the same way as leave days. With sick days you will be put on the spot and need to find replacements instantly. which makes for a very inconsistent and stressfull working environment. Where leave days will often be announced 24 hour or longer before taking leave. Which allows to re-allocate employees on time. It's like giving you a homework assignment that needs to be finished within an hour while it needs 5 hours to be finished.
    – Migz
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 5:58
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    @Scott Keep in mind that the US certainly wouldn't feature in that list of countries. PTO simply isn't regulated in that way and can be very limited in certain industries and particularly in small companies.
    – Lilienthal
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 8:42
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    OP, one point of advice in case you find no suitable resolution, have no more flexibility for this position and have to replace this employee: transition him out properly instead of firing him. You've already shown more compassion than some employers would but it would be a nice thing to do for both the employee and your reputation.
    – Lilienthal
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 8:55
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    "he has been calling in about every other week" -- so he's responsible for 2 days of unpredicted leave per month. Just for scale, how many days of unpredicted leave per month come in total from the other people doing similar jobs to him? The practical solutions, in terms of emergency cover, will be different if he's adding 10% on top of the usual that you have always managed adequately, compared with if he's adding 1000% on top of the usual. I'd guess he's somewhere between the two. Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 9:54

14 Answers 14


I had a single parent friend who nearly lost her job due to taking too many sick days for her and her daughter. When she mentioned to my wife and a mutual friend that she was on her last warning they both stepped in and started taking her baby when she couldn't go to daycare.

Be open with this guy that a problem exists, that too many sick days are hurting the business and that something has to give. It may be that he has alternative arrangements that he hasn't utilized because he didn't know the magnitude of the problem. Once you start that dialog then be open to listening. If he has zero alternatives then brainstorm some ideas with him about a change of role or alternative childcare arrangements.

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    While I like Kate's practical solution a lot, I have to take a moment to highlight this one. Many times, a good solution pops out of an honest conversation. No judgement, no presumption, no hard feelings, just an open and honest conversation about what the negative impacts of the employee's situation are on the firm and working together to fix those.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 15:23
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    Another idea, is there someone at your workplace who has a stay-at-home spouse who might be willing to watch the kids when they are sick? Or sometimes military single parents send the kids to live with their parents temporarily. Could he make similar arrangements until the children are a bit bigger and less prone to getting sick so often?
    – HLGEM
    Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 15:51
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    @HLGEM "children" "less prone to getting sick so often" - my experience has been these two properties don't jive. If they are children, they are getting sick. A lot. It's super frustrating.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 16:56
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    @Lyrl If they are standing on not wanting to impose, then they probably don't understand the seriousness of the problem (that you are considering terminating them over this). Open communication is key.
    – Myles
    Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 21:09
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    @corsiKa My daughter was frequently ill with colds etc until she had been in day care for a couple years. For the last 1-2 years it's been pretty rare.
    – Joel
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 2:42

I suggest you offer your employee reduced hours - say 32 a week. Then you pay him only for that, and you plan around that. Your plan might be that he doesn't work Fridays. Your arrangement would then be that if someone gets ill during the week, he takes that day off and works Friday. You can plan the schedules and other people's work around getting 32 hours from him, rather than 40, and if things fall behind early in the week due to an absence, at least you have a way to deal with it. (For example, ask others to work late and offer them Friday off in exchange, and he'll do their work that day.)

He is likely to appreciate this tremendously. And he can schedule doctor appointments and other "family business" for a Friday whenever possible, so things will become more predictable and stable. And, since it's rare to find an employer who would give this arrangement, he will be very loyal to you and unlikely to hop away to another job.

If he's worth keeping, it's worth looking at this as a way to make it work. (Background: I had an employee I did this for and it worked quite well, but she wanted 4 10 hour days and I don't recommend that. The 9th and 10th hour in a day are not anyone's best so really I was paying for 40 and getting 35 or so.)

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    ...most jobs have to be completed on the shift they are scheduled - the work isn't something that can be made up for another day. It doesn't sound like the business environment supports this level of flexibility.
    – Myles
    Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 14:39
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    @Myles: That's why the answer proposes "For example, ask others to work late and offer them Friday off in exchange". The idea would be to ask others to change their schedule for him. Whether this is possible/practical depends on the work and workplace, of course.
    – sleske
    Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 14:58
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    While we're willing to offer flexible hours (and have already with the later start time), the problem is the unplanned nature of the sick days. It's one thing to arrange for other employees to have predictable coverage schedules, it's another thing entirely to keep calling the offshift person in early on an emergency basis.
    – Lyrl
    Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 15:25
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    @JoeStrazzere "if someone gets ill during the week, he takes that day off and works Friday" and I go on to suggest ways of getting coverage on the day of absence should it be needed (many people are happy to be offered a Friday off or a Friday afternoon off, so ideally coworkers would step up to work late earlier in the week keeping production levels where they need to be. Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 22:49
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    @JoeStrazzere Unfortunately, in the US, depending on what type of manufacturing this company does, they may not be able to leverage part-time employees much. Some union shops are prohibited from hiring part-timers at all. In other cases, the specific manufacturing type is regulated by number of employees (not # of FTEs), so if you have 50 part-timers, you have considerably more compliance expenses than if you have 25 full-timers. It's a broken system that's led some companies to only hire people willing to work 60+ hour weeks to keep the total # of employees down.
    – HedgeMage
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 16:14

Where I live (Sweden), letting this guy go would not only be a bad idea, but even illegal. My view on things is that you have a business big enough that it is likely that every now and then one or more of your employees might be in a situation where they might suffer from greater than average amounts of absence. If you can't accommodate for that, you might see yourself firing people at a higher rate than you would ideally like, which might hurt your reputation as an employer. You should try to have enough workforce so one person's situation with temporary greater degree of absence does not risk your deadlines.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Jane S
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 10:33
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    It's quite irrelevant what the situation in Sweden is when the OP is in the US and has to compete against other businesses which can fire at will. Doing things as in Sweden while working in the US is a handicap. Commented Sep 3, 2019 at 7:14

Unfortunately, when you expect the better part of people's waking hours each day, even responsible, loyal employees will experience times in their life where the demands of coping with the situations on-hand will interfere with their abilities to operate at 100% performance. This is especially true with young children. They aren't in school, many get sick often, and childcare providers don't want to take sick children (and forcing sick children to go to daycare instead of getting rest can prolong the problem or lead to additional or more severe illnesses). Daycare can be completely unaffordable for someone with two children who are not yet school-aged, so it is not uncommon for them to seek an alternative (such as someone who provides care in their home). This can lead to additional reliability issues because your employee is now subject to a third party getting sick (or having sick kids themselves) and cancelling.

In US culture, many people do not have support systems robust enough to handle these types of challenges. They don't have parents or relatives to step in when kids get sick because they either live too far away or have jobs themselves. The result is that, while this might be an isolated incident in a small company, it is not an isolated problem in general. Even in a committed relationship, there is generally a lot of absence due to sick children. The differences is that, when in a relationship, you can generally divide the responsibilities among two people so it is not as much of an issue. There is also a better chance that someone in the relationship will have a greater degree of flexibility so they can more effectively deal with these types of situations.

That is the human component of the equation. If this is an otherwise-good employee that is going through a rough patch in life, I'd be inclined to try and be creative and understanding. Regarding the business quotient, finding good employees is expensive and time-consuming. You could easily replace a temporary problem with another larger temporary problem, so unless you know you have eager, capable replacements available, I again think that trying to work through the problem makes sense from a financial standpoint as well.

The first step in resolving the problem is to open up the discussion with the employee. Focus on the result instead of the cause. For example, approach the employee and say, "the frequent, unplanned absences are causing the company not to be able to meet its commitments," instead of hitting the employee over the head with, "you're calling off 5 times a month because either you or your kids are sick." Acknowledge the employee's difficulties ("I am sure your situation has been incredibly difficult and we want to try and do our best to be understanding,") but don't remove the responsibility ("but it is also important that we're able complete orders when we've promised them."). Then let them know you'd like to find a solution that works for everyone ("You've been a good employee for a long time, and we'd like to find an arrangement that will work for both you and us.").

Now that you're (hopefully) having a productive conversation I'd explain the specific impact (we've had N orders fulfilled late due to unplanned absences in the last X months), focusing again on measurable details and the end result. Explain that it simply isn't possible, due to customer requirements, to put jobs off until another shift. Then, ask the employee to give suggestions on how they think they can help be part of the solution. You might be surprised how empowering someone to impact their own life can lead to solutions. They may suggest that they reduce their hours, or realize they need more support and find it. If the employee is well-respected by their peers, you might even suggest tackling the problem as team and seeing if others would be willing to step in and help by working a couple extra hours, or know someone that wouldn't mind helping with the kids, etc. You could also suggest resources for the employee (many larger employers offer an employee assistance plan specifically for these types of challenges).

Another Thought

A single parent dealing with a difficult break-up and suddenly finding themselves raising two young, demanding children, may very well be burnt out. Chronic stress (the kind that comes with these situations) will cause these issues. They need a break, and yet never get one because all of their time, PTO, etc. is spent caring for others. They desperately need to care for themselves, but are terrified to ask because they are afraid of losing their income, appearing less-than-dedicated, or don't want to admit they need help. The result is that they are in a constant state of fatigue from which they can't recover. It might be as simple as offering to allow the employee to take a little time off (paid or unpaid) and letting them know you support them and want to see them improve.

Final Thought

Put the details of the personal situation aside. Human employees are all going to hit rough patches. Is this an otherwise good employee that has suddenly come across a challenge they can't quite conquer alone? Is it temporary (most likely is)? Is it creating undue hardship, or is it an inconvenience (albeit a frustrating one)? If it is creating actual hardship, then it might be best to accept that the business simply doesn't have the resources to handle the situation and help the employee find something better suited. If it is an inconvenience, maybe accept the situation and instead focus on ways that can make it less inconvenient?

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    Thank you for this answer, it is very well thought out. "Regarding the business quotient, finding good employees is expensive and time-consuming." Very true, and this person has a history as an excellent employee. And the paragraph on burnout, too - his caffeine consumption has gone way up and performance a little bit down since all this happened. Something we're kind of peripherally aware of but it helps to see it spelled out as symptoms of burnout.
    – Lyrl
    Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 20:47
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    @Lyrl - Don't forget as well that, if this has been a good employee, he probably knows he's not performing at his best and is worried about that as well. That just adds to the overall stress and exacerbates the problem. Someone that wants to do a good job can take it very personally when they know they aren't and feels out of control to change it. Being open about concerns and allowing him to feel safe being open as well might go a long way. It is a tough position, and I wish you both luck.
    – DVK
    Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 20:55
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    "Is it temporary (most likely is)" I guess that depends on how broadly you define 'temporary.' Eventually they'll be old enough not to need someone to stay home with them when they're sick, but we're presumably talking about at least several years.
    – reirab
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 3:57
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    "forcing sick children to go to daycare ..." -- it's also extremely anti-social because you might infect all the other kids, and suddenly, your egoistical "I'll just park it there so I personally can continue to work" becomes a "my kid infected the whole day care institution and now not 1 but 20..40..120 families have this problem" - and bang, it's not just 1 potential absentee anymore, but possibly 20..40..120. With some bad luck, this egoistical behaviour can kill entire companies (i.e. when all the parents in a small company use the same local day care provider). Commented Apr 27, 2016 at 6:52
  • @reirab: as the children get older, even before they're old enough to stay home alone, their immune systems develop and they get sick less often in the first place... so yes, far more temporary than you're alluding.
    – Doktor J
    Commented Apr 27, 2016 at 18:52

It appears, from comments, like you've already had a conversation with the employee at least twice and he hasn't been successful in making alternative arrangements. As someone who's run a small business and become a single mother on very little notice, I can empathize with both sides of this problem.

  • The business has to remain functioning and profitable or ~20 people are out of jobs.
  • The employee/dad is probably still reeling from becoming a single parent, and the aftermath thereof for his children: he probably hasn't had time off to slow down and get out of burnout mode, especially given that he's spent all his PTO on sick leave.
  • If the employee/dad doesn't have a robust local support network (friends and family) who can help, he may be out in the cold. In a couple of places that I've lived, community resources target single mothers, not single parents. Dads need not apply. This hit a good friend of mine hard when he became a single father, living about 400 miles from his nearest relative.
  • The unpredictability of the employee/dad's unscheduled time off is likely to be impacting other employees to some degree, at least as far as morale goes.
  • Every employee at a company this small will see how this employee is treated, and remember that when dealing with their own life emergencies. You have the potential here for a moment that solidifies a team and builds company loyalty, or that makes good employees stressed out and less loyal to the company.

There are things you can do, and things you can't do about the situation. You can't run your employee's life, and you can't put 20 people's jobs at risk to save one. However, you can:

  • Introduce your employee to resources that he may not know about. Some that come to mind are:
    • the Parenting StackExchange site, which has experienced parents (including single parents) like me hanging around to provide advice on navigating all these challenges.
    • Care.com, which I've used when in a new city to meet caregivers. I usually kept 2-3 different babysitters on rotation so that if one was sick, or I needed care suddenly and unexpectedly, chances are someone would be free.
    • Any good community groups you know of (call a city or county community center or parks and rec department to find out what they have) that may have support services. While child care during work hours is top priority right now, it's not the only priority...playgroups, parents' night out, and so on can really help lower the now-single dad's stress levels and make him more productive.
  • Consider whether your company has enough employees for it to be worth offering something like on-site emergency sick child care. If you are the kind of shop where OSHA requires you to keep an RN or paramedic on staff anyway, it costs you next to nothing to have a room with a cot and a TV next to his/her office where he/she can check in on a sick kid in the 90% of his/her shift where nothing interesting is happening...it would be a potentially valuable benefit for ALL of your workers who are parents.
  • Consider whether it might help for this employee to take on an apprentice. Such an arrangement would give a less experienced, lower-wage worker the chance to gain new skills, and that worker could do this employee's prep in the hour or so it would take to arrange emergency child care on a really bad day, turning a previous sick day into only a sick hour. Then the senior employee is there to do the higher-skill parts of his job.
  • Consider how your production line is set up. Single points of failure are hard to avoid in a 5-man shop, but can usually be mitigated to some degree in a 20+man shop. Building in the ability to rearrange the order of jobs on the production line (if it makes sense for the type of production you are doing), cross-training employees so they can more easily cover for one another on short notice (without major shift changes), and ensuring you have some margin for error in your scheduling are all strategies you might employ to make your production line more resilient to these sorts of upsets. There are others, but I'd need to know more about your shop to make intelligent, applicable suggestions.

    I looked for research that I could share with you about how work hour flexibility positively impacts productivity. Unfortunately, most of this is pretty politicized (not to mention focused on white-collar workers) or paywalled. This isn't the best article on the subject, but it's easy to access, the WSJ reports (in keeping with everybody else, really) that flexible scheduling and work-from-home options increase productivity across the board. Work-from-home isn't usually possible in manufacturing, but I wanted to give a nod to the business-case upsides for scheduling flexibility.

In the end, consider the risk/reward proposition for your business. There are a lot of factors to balance, from morale to profits to attracting competent employees to the costs of replacing someone experienced. You may, in the end, have to set a deadline and do your best to help the employee to move on to something more suited to his new situation...but it's good to know you've explored all options first.

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    Welcome to The Workplace and thank you for this thoughtful, well-balanced answer. Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 15:11
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    This was an excellent post with a lot of very positive, practical solutions. In these situations, it is usually resources and support that create the barrier, not the employee's willingness or desire to do a good job. +1 for providing resources and mentioning burnout. It is impossible to understand just how much energy these situations take until you've been there.
    – DVK
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 15:38

This is not unreasonable and you should live with it.

The OP has clarified that it was 5 days a month the worst month during the divorce and situation change, and now it's about 2 sick days a month. And it comes out of his 80 hours of PTO first and is subsequently unpaid.

If your business can't tolerate someone being out 2 days a month, there's something very wrong with how you are running your business. No one there has any kind of chronic illness? Or likes taking vacations? Someone with 2 weeks of vacation can take off two days a month for 7 of the months and it's OK, but then if they were to do that the other 5 months your productivity would collapse?

It's fine to tell him he needs to put in more time when he can and otherwise try to make up for the additional non-PTO outage (the 80 hours, he's due without any comp to you). It'd be unusual if his ex never had any days with the kids he could use to pick up a swing shift or his parents never want to take them for a week in the summer where he could power through making it up some.

But more importantly, a motivated worker's going to get more done in their hours than some other unmotivated one punching the clock, so instead of treating this as a "problem," talk to him about how y'all are going above and beyond even though it hurts some to support him, and it's likely you'll get as much back with him going above and beyond.

I had an employee who stayed home one day because his beloved dog died and he and his wife were distraught about it. Did I sweat him over that? Heck no, I told him to take the day and we bought and sent over a little memorial stone for the dog. He was extremely thankful afterwards and for a day of work and $30 I got a very dedicated and supportive worker. The employee (and you) can work smarter, not harder, and still make things come out well.

As he gets more "in the groove" the absences will go down (already went down from 5 to 2). You've already weathered the hard part, why not reap the rewards of a thankful employee?

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    As a European, with 2 days of vacation per month (25/year), it's indeed really surprising that American companies cannot handle that level of absence. Pretty much any European company can, whether they have 2000 or 2 employees.
    – MSalters
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 8:29
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    @MSalters - in Europe, do the 25 days occur without notice? Do folks just call in that morning 25 times per year and say "I'm taking a day off"? Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 13:35
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    @WorkerDrone: Well, it's quite usual to take 2 or 3 weeks off as a single long holiday, and even for a single-week vacation you'd give some notice. But for a single day off, it wouldn't be unheard off. I've in fact seen a rule that the deadline for taking the day off was 9 AM. And obviously, that assumes you don't have any hard reason to be present. (Don't try it as a soccer player before an important match ;) ). But in manufacturing? It's pretty standard to have a stand-by team that can fill in any critical position.
    – MSalters
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 13:54
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    Other people get sick too, either the line has a coverage strategy or they're poorly managed. We're talking about a larger amount, but not double, of the outage everyone else has given 80 hrs PTO. In the end, consider what kind of company you want to be (and want people to read about on Glassdoor) and do what you think is best.
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Apr 27, 2016 at 0:42
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    @HopelessN00b Fantastic place to work at, I'm sure, if a 20+ year worker gets fired because of sickness.
    – xxbbcc
    Commented Apr 28, 2016 at 20:21

My first answer focused on identifying the cause and opening lines of communication, but I was thinking about this last night (because I've been in both the employee's and the business manager's shoes on this issue), and thought some additional suggestions might help spark a solution. These are also benefits that might be able to be offered to ALL employees with little or no cost to the company, and would help improve workplace morale, reduce stress, and increase employee retention.

  • Implement an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) These are generally very cost effective (costing < $50 annually per employee) and offer a variety of benefits including mental health services and assistance finding legal help and childcare. Find an EAP program that offers childcare benefits. Then your employee can call and open a case, and the EAP worker will try and find something for them that fits their needs and budgets. For a single parent with a full-time job, even finding, contacting, and visiting childcare providers can be a challenge since the facilities' hours generally conflict with normal working hours.

  • Offer a 9/80 Shift Option Basically, instead of working 8 hours/day, employees work 9 hours per day. On alternating weeks they either have one 8 hour shift or have an extra day off. The employee still works 80 hours in two weeks. If employees staggered their days off, they could "trade" with one another so you still have a full compliment and they don't have to take PTO.

  • Partner with a Local Childcare Facility If you have multiple employees with children, see if you can find a local childcare facility that would be willing to offer your employees a discount in return for you making them known to your employees. The benefit here is that, if the facility is small and locally owned and values the arrangement, they might be a little bit more tolerant if a child experiences minor sickness during the workday.

  • Have an Open-Door Policy If employees are worried about getting shot down or in trouble every time they need to take a day off, they may wait until the last minute to let you know they won't be in. If an employee is experiencing hardship, let them know that they can take as much time as they need, but that it is very important that you have advanced notice whenever possible. Let the employee know why unscheduled absences disrupt everyone, but ask them to help you come up with a solution to their specific situation. Maybe they can write down several ideas that you can discuss together. Very little impacts morale and stress more than an employee that has a situation largely out of their control, and then getting flak for doing the best they can to navigate it.

  • Allow Employees to Change Roles When positions need filled, post them internally and allow employees to apply for them first. Many companies are hesitant to do this because it means additional training (the old employee needs trained for the new job and the new employee needs trained for the old job), but on the upside, it also accomplishes cross-training, meaning the old employee can step right back into their old role from time to time to cover vacations and absences.

  • Separation Separating the employee IS a solution, and may be the RIGHT solution. I haven't lost sight of that. When I've had to make similar decisions I've always asked myself whether or not I have made reasonable, practical efforts to rectify the issue, whether the employee has had adequate communication, and whether or not there is a good chance that the situation will resolve within a reasonable timeframe. If I've made reasonable efforts and there is little chance of improvement, then it may be best to part ways. That doesn't mean you have to boot them out with nothing. You might choose not to file a rebuttal when they apply for unemployment, or you might be willing to act as a reference. Many business owners know other business owners, so you could even network a little to help the employee get their foot in the door for a more suitable role.

  • Make a Role This doesn't have to cost anything. If you have a manufacturing facility, you probably are paying for cleaning services, grounds maintenance, facility maintenance, and other misc. jobs. Perhaps the employee would be interested in taking over many of these things and accepting a rate adjustment in exchange for greater job security, more flexibility, and the option to come back to their old position when life calms down and there is an opening.

  • Organize Non-Job-Related Support If the employee is OK with it and the situation is common knowledge, rally the troops and see if folks would be willing to volunteer to send dinner home a couple times a week or organize play-dates for the kids so dad can have a break. With two young kids, even going to the grocery store can be overwhelming (most stores don't have carts that hold two kids, and a single parent has one set of hands). Something as simple as a co-worker offering to go shopping together once a week could make a huge difference in managing burnout.

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    Tolerating "minor sickness" as a care provider has nothing to do with how well you know or like the kids or their families and everything to do with protecting the health and safety of the other kids, their families and the individual(s) providing care. Either the kid is too sick to be in care, or not, based on symptoms. A virus or bacteria doesn't care about anyone's reputation or credit score.
    – Air
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 16:31
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    @Air Kids get sick, and do it a lot. Childcare providers have different tolerance levels. Some will send kids home the second they see a runny nose, and others won't call you to pick up unless the child has fever or vomiting. Some offer "sick care" at an increased rate. Typically by the time a kid is physically showing symptoms, everyone else has already been exposed. I am not talking about letting a child vomit all over the facility. I am talking about letting Dad finish the workday when Jr. gets the sniffles at lunch.
    – DVK
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 16:35
  • Beware, though, when partnering with day care facilities. Only do this if you can partner with one that has a very good reputation and excellent reviews. Anything less and your business may be seen as one that does this only for the sake of appearances but doesn't actually care. I wouldn't use a partnered daycare for my kid if that daycare is known to be a bad place, no matter how much money/time I may save.
    – xxbbcc
    Commented Apr 28, 2016 at 20:31
  • " If employees are worried about getting shot down or in trouble every time they need to take a day off, they may wait until the last minute to let you know they won't be in." // Undersigned. I myself have been the employee in this situation. The combination of dread and the lingering hope that maybe somehow, some way, you can swing something at the last second and avoid an undue, longlasting and unproductive conflict leads to people rushing around until the last minutes before shift pursuing unlikely solutions.
    – Ejaz
    Commented May 14, 2020 at 18:55

Sometimes there are counseling programs that an employer can put in place to help employees during crisis periods at home. Access to these types of programs is free to the employee, and a great resource to getting everybody involved to the next phase. It'd be real dumb to think that nobody on a job is ever going to have lapses due to birth, death, divorce, alcohol / drug use, medical emergencies, and so forth.

This guy on the job might just lack coping skills or access to information. He's a blue-collar worker, and the pay alone might preclude his field of vision to options that are available. Or, he might not see options because in many instances, they're labelled "For women and children". It might be as simple as pointing his nose in a different direction, rather than coming down on him as inept.

If you fire him without some intercession, it's going to send an ugly message to the other workers that they have to have their lives together 100% of the time.. which actually makes the workplace more stressful than it already is. At least try.

He might need a "coach" - someone more available than the "boss" or HR, and more impartial.

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    This is a good answer, but being blue collar has very little to do with it. The vast majority of people have no idea where to find resources. It is not uncommon for someone to become completely overwhelmed (especially working full-time and dealing with the stress of multiple young children).
    – DVK
    Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 20:47
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    Blue-collar factors in, because most white-collar employees sit in front of a computer with Internet access and have immediate access to a telephone and a reasonable amount of privacy during work hours, when most of these resources are available.
    – Xavier J
    Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 20:49
  • The only problem I have with this answer is company size. If there are only 20 employees there may not be enough resources flowing around to offer "counseling" or the like. But maybe there is something.
    – coteyr
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 15:23
  • It may still cost less than training somebody new.
    – Xavier J
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 15:25
  • "Or, he might not see options because in many instances, they're labelled "For women and children"." // And unfortunately they often ARE only for women and children. This isn't just a situation of personal oversight or men being embarrassed to utilize such resources etc., there is a structural problem with lack of formal wellness resources targeted to men in the USA. Even broaching this topic has become politically associated with undesirable elements, unfortunately. I saw this first-hand when a male member of my immediate family was involved in a severe domestic violence situation.
    – Ejaz
    Commented May 14, 2020 at 18:59

Whereas the majority of answers here have to do with compassion, most have little to do with legalities.

I have seen law suits, and threats of legal action based on one or more employees sense of injustice. This can be where an organizational chart was drawn with a lower-level position (assistant to the CIO, for example) shown at the same horizontal level as a significantly higher-level employee (a Director, for example). Or it can be where one employee is seemingly allowed to work from home one or two days per week, but others are not allowed to. Or in your case, an employee seemingly allowed to take more sick days off then other employees are allowed to.

Although there are many compassionate answers here, most of them are not fair. What I mean by that is that as a manager (I am assuming you are), you must be very careful to apply leniency across the board. If you do give this single father latitude on the sick days, would you also extend that to a single mother. How about someone who has a chronic illness. How about someone who has a diagnosed anxiety disorder? etc. etc. Is this just in the case of sickness? How do you distinguish between "sickness" and someone whom you believe stays home because they partied too much the night before.

The fact is, although I do appreciate an employee explaining their situation so as to distinguish reasonable sick time off versus frivolity, an employee's personal life is none of my business. No employee should feel as though they have to disclose such personal information to their employer. This is both a legal, and I believe, a professional stance.

And if you do give more latitude to employees who voluntarily disclose such details to you, versus employees who do not, then you have created a situation where it can be shown you are requiring personal details that in many countries you are not legally allowed to ask for.

What this all boils down to is how you deal with individuals, versus how you deal with your workforce as a whole. Many of the compassionate suggestions here, such as starting an in-house day care, may be a good fit for your business and may help with such situations when available to your entire workforce. And those are good long-term strategies then. On the short-term and individual cases it is better to thoughtfully draft and execute job descriptions and employee handbooks clearly describing such cases and what remedies the company will employ to rectify violations.

This doesn't mean you have to be harsh. It means that job descriptions and employee handbooks, aside from required legal aspects, can be defined as lenient or as strict as you decide to. Just don't leave it up to individual situations or ambiguity or you are likely to find yourself in law suits. So in the case of your question, I assume there are the typical multiple levels of time off, personal days, sick days, vacation, whatever. Has this person used all of these options?

I know these cases can be difficult. Some of my manufacturing facilities are in remote areas where it is difficult to find enough good employees to fully staff the operations. And so some area managers are sometimes lenient in the case of higher performing employees. However I have seen cases where some of the bottom performing employees then turn that into a legal threat to gain immunity, since they were slated as the first to go in cases of any workforce reductions. Be fair, be consistent. Tell them what the rules and ramifications are, and stick to them. Be compassionate, but across the board.

  • " How about someone who has a chronic illness. How about someone who has a diagnosed anxiety disorder? etc. etc." FWIW, the ADA already exists and is meant to handle such questions. Disability accommodations as such legally mandated and not a matter of personal kindness. That said, employers can definitely make one's life harder or easier as far as obtaining said accommodations without retaliation, without going through an HR fight, etc etc. I have heard tales of companies that seemed needlessly averse to simple, harmless remedies on principle alone.
    – Ejaz
    Commented May 14, 2020 at 18:49

It sounds like you work with a manufacturing process where positions are immutable; i.e. there is a production line that requires 5 employees to operate and cannot run at all if one team member is missing. Appropriate staffing for a small business is vital: have one too few and a production line sits idle. Have one too many and you are wasting money paying an unproductive person.

The simple truth about sickness, though, is that it is unplanned. This one employee might seem like an outlier by averaging 2 sick days a month, but the national average is 1 day a month and that's across all age ranges. Someone with young children is simply going to need more. Would you really have a policy that says "we won't employ parents with small children"?

If you have, so far, not needed to cross this bridge because your employees use very little sick leave then you really should count yourself lucky from the start.

Mitigating risk of employee absence is something every business has to face at some point, and they do it in a variety of ways. Some will (as you proposed) try to cream for employees who use little sick time, by eliminating those that use a lot of sick time. But this is short sighted and guarantees turnover, and turnover is expensive. Others will create processes that tolerate change, either by keeping extra employees on or by cross training employees so that they can be shifted to the highest value process in the event of an unplanned absence. This creates a robust team environment and a more flexible business overall, but comes at a price. Would you rather nurture talent and loyalty, or headhunt for lower costs?

  • 1
    Jeff said "1 day a month". That doesn't translate to "12 times per year". Someone could be down with flu and miss a week. Commented Apr 27, 2016 at 0:46
  • @Joe: it seems to depend who you ask. US government said 10 in 2007 (plus a further 4 caring for family members), reliableplant.com/Read/27873/US-employees-sick-days but PwC said 4.9 for 2013, cnbc.com/id/100886193. I doubt that difference represents a genuine change in only 6 years so there may be some ambiguity in what "sick leave" means, or just bad methodology in there somewhere. Commented Apr 27, 2016 at 9:42
  • 2
    Also bear in mind that the "average" (mean) might end up looking unreasonable, simply because it's unlikely to be a normal distribution. There's presumably a heavy tail of people who eventually were fired or signed off on disability after taking way too much sick leave for their employer's liking, whereas the curve on the other side cuts off at 0 since you can't take less than that. Then there's people in hospital beds all over the country, with serious injuries and illnesses, raising the average without "calling in sick" a lot. So the average days off sick might not be the right benchmark. Commented Apr 27, 2016 at 9:58

Another possibility besides basically having somebody else taking care of the children might be to have this employee bring the children with him to work - provided there's a suitable space for that.

Or conversely see if a home-office solution might work for this employee.

My point here is that the parent probably doesn't need to watch the (sick) children 24h/24h but rather needs to be close by.

  • 1
    @WorkerDrone That's pretty much what I meant with suitable place. I completely agree that having sick children in the office will do no good.
    – Tarok
    Commented Apr 27, 2016 at 10:49

Are there any other paths that might work for both the business and the employee?

Not really, it's an ongoing problem and it's not the businesses decision that he opted to take custody of his kids without support, although I sympathise with him. In addition you have already given him a big break by giving him special hours.

By the sounds of it it's impacting on a lot of people at work and probably the bottom line ($$) as well, if not now, then it certainly will eventually. You have to take all these factors in to account and weigh them against his productivity etc,. he's affecting the whole team. This can/probably will impact on general morale with the other workers even if they won't admit it.

I would contemplate getting rid of him however reluctantly, but I would talk it over with him first. Because I know many solo parents who manage their own personal lives without impacting on their work every week. So I would explain to him that he needs to get his act together or I can't afford to keep him. At least that way he's got a clear 'heads up' and has a chance to do whatever he needs to do.

If he didn't comply I'd let him go. He's had a fair warning.

  • 22
    Telling someone to "get his act together" when he has absences because of sickness (==not something you can choose) is counterproductive. Failing someone else who can care for sick children, you as employer will either have to tolerate the many sick days or not, but telling him to see that his children wont get sick again is at best disconnected from reality somewhat.
    – Magisch
    Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 13:56
  • 7
    I'd get a job where I either work from home, or I'd hire someone, or find another way. But that's beside the point, the question is not about how he can do it (that's his problem to work out). It's about the business.
    – Kilisi
    Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 14:03
  • 12
    "... it's not the businesses fault that he opted to take custody of his kids ..." Poor choice of words, IMO. Many break ups occur due to chemical dependence, mental issues, or other issues which make one party unfit to be a parent. We don't know that isn't the case here.
    – GreenMatt
    Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 15:19
  • 6
    " I know many solo parents who manage their own personal lives without impacting on their work every week" Every person's situation is different. Some people have non-working relatives and friends close by, a more understanding caregiver, more financial resources, etc. There are also plenty of people who end up on public assistance in these situations. Someone that is trying their best to do their job but is facing difficult challenges benefits from support and communication, not an ultimatum.
    – DVK
    Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 18:00
  • 6
    @GreenMatt agree with Lightness. Also do not forget that somewhere out there there is another single parent with 3 kids without a job, who would be super happy to work at that place for the same conditions. Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 23:19

The answer is simple.

The children should not factor into your decision.

You did not have the child, you did not arrange the family circumstance. Children are not an excuse to not hold up the employee end of the of the arrangement. The employee should find another job that is more conducive to their lifestyle.

This is 100% on the parent. It's not your fault. I can not stress this enough. You need to approach this situation dispassionately. It's not fair for 19 other employees to pay the price for this one irresponsible employee. (Of the other 19 employees, I'm sure that there is at least 1 more with a child that shows up like their supposed to)

With that out of the way, your options are simple:

  • Fire the employee, you would if they didn't have a child. The child should not figure into this equation.
  • Try to be honest and put the employee on probation. Something like, "This is a real problem, you need to address it, or we will have to let you go."
  • Try to adjust the hours this person works. Offer them a 20 hour shift instead of a 40 hour shift. But only if your willing to go through this.
  • Offer leave, same as you would to any employee undergoing stress.

When trying to choose which option to take, don't factor in the child. He is an employee with a disciplinary problem. Treat it as such. Do what you would normally do if this guy was a single, childless guy, who couldn't be bothered to show up to work. There are plenty of single parents that manage a full time job. Don't diminish them. You have already made adjustments. There's not much more you can do.


When I first wrote this answer I was under the impression that the employee was missing 5 days a month. It has been made clear that the employee is only missing 2 days a month. This answer however still holds true.

I asked several other small business owners in my area what they would do and their response was either fire the guy outright, or put him on "last chance" probation. The general consensus is that you can not let one person with a problem effect the business or the other 19 employees. You should instead follow your companies existing policy on unplanned absences. Every one I spoke with stated that they would have been understanding during the divorce phase, and offered things ranging from paid leave to adjusted hours, but once that phase was over and the two continuing absences a month kept happening, that is too much.

I know this is not going to be a popular answer, but I decided to un-delete it anyway.

  • 4
    The only honest answer. Welfarism is way overrepresented on this site by people who benefit from it
    – user7230
    Commented Apr 27, 2016 at 1:15
  • 2
    "Every one I spoke with stated that they would have been understanding during the divorce phase" -- did they explain why children are 100% on the employee, but divorce is not? I can think of a couple of possible reasons, but I'm still curious to know how the thinking goes. Commented Apr 27, 2016 at 9:35
  • 6
    Usually, it's along two lines. First a Divorce is a short term very stressful event. Children are a fact of life. There not going anywhere. While they can be stressful, and that stress level may peak from time to time, kids are kids and there not going anywhere. In other words part of being a parent, plan around it. Second, Single parents are a thing. In the business of 20, there is almost certainly another single parent. Why should employee A get special treatment while employee B doesn't? Why should the parent employees get different treatments then single employees?
    – coteyr
    Commented Apr 27, 2016 at 14:24
  • 2
    Treat everyone the same, a short term stressful event can happen to anyone. Divorce, family death, house burn down, car accident., these things suck, and happen. Most of the people I asked said they would encourage their employees to take sick, vacation, etc. time in one large to take care if the issue. The company can hire a temp. or work around the missing employee for a wile. But that the frequent absences can't become a normal thing.
    – coteyr
    Commented Apr 27, 2016 at 14:28
  • 1
    When employees with children are encouraged to expect preferential treatment, they will find it increasingly difficult to gain employment as it gets brought up more in interviews. So they end up screwing over other employees with children who do the right thing.
    – user7230
    Commented Apr 28, 2016 at 16:15

Im going to tell you something you probably don't want to hear:

There is almost nothing you can do about this.

Its a simple matter of choice for you: Do you want to sack a single parent and live with the implications or do you want to continue employing him and live with the implications?

  • 11
    The OP already pointed out that problem in the question. I'm not sure what this answer adds. Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 16:12
  • @MonicaCellio: If Magisch is right, and he may well be, it doesn't matter if the answer adds nothing.
    – Joshua
    Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 16:19
  • 2
    Sometimes the only right answer to a "how do I do X" question is, "It can't be done." That's not a non-answer; that's a perfectly valid answer. It may be wrong, there may really be a solution, but it is a fair answer.
    – Jay
    Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 16:26
  • 16
    While these comments may be correct in some circumstances, I think the abundance of well thought out answers constitute pretty strong evidence that this is a useless response.
    – Dancrumb
    Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 17:25
  • 1
    @Dancrumb A useless response with 11 upvotes. Sheesh. Commented Apr 27, 2016 at 23:53

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