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Dear Workforce Our New Sick-Leave Policy Will Be Controversial. How Should We Handle the Fallout?

My workplace is changing our current sick-leave policy, which formerly required a doctor’s note for absences of three days, to now require a doctor’s note for every sick day, unless it’s previously scheduled and approved. Since people can’t predict when they’ll be sick, this means a doctor’s note will be required every time. As a supervisor, I dread having to present this new policy to my staff. I don’t agree with the policy myself, so how do I present it and deal with the decrease in morale that will surely result?
March 29, 2010
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Related Topics: Benefit Design and Communication, Health and Wellness, Policies and Procedures, Health Care Benefits, Dear Workforce
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Dear Sick About This:
It may be cold comfort, but you are not in a unique situation. The struggling economy has forced many organizations to make policy decisions that are destined to erode employee satisfaction. The lack of a well-thought-out communication strategy has placed many frontline supervisors in a delicate position: They must deliver unpopular messages with little or no context about why changes were made. They usually aren't given much direction on how to deliver the news, either. It's as though company executives are saying, "We decided what to do. Now you figure out how to explain it."
As with any difficult communication, you must develop a strategy for delivering the news. Write this strategy down so you have a consistent story. Don't leave anything to chance or risk an off-the-cuff response when the questions start to pour in. Here are the keys to an effective approach to delivering news—particularly if it is going to be unpopular.
Start with the context
Sick leave has a high organizational cost in terms of replacement workers, lost productivity, errors and rework, client unhappiness and, of course, the inevitable frustration for employees who are at work trying to pick up the slack. As a supervisor, you already know that the use of sick leave is on the rise. With more being asked of all employees, even the healthiest workers start to feel they deserve a little time off and begin to take sick days.
Your company, like many, is evaluating all plans and programs to find ways to reduce cost and stimulate productivity. While you don't want to encourage sick employees to come to work, preventing misuse of the sick-leave policy is good for your department, the rest of your team, the company and your shareholders.
Move to explain the "why"
Context and background make it easier to formulate the reasons you are making the change. Stated clearly and concisely, these become your talking points:
1. Sick leave is an important but high-cost benefit.
2. The company is experiencing a surge in the use of sick time, which is affecting company performance.
3. Legitimately sick employees should feel comfortable taking the necessary time away from work to recover since there is also a cost to sick employees coming to work or returning too soon.
4. Employees who need an occasional day off can schedule vacation days, which will allow supervisors to better plan for the absence and maintain needed productivity levels.
5. The change to the sick-leave policy is one way to help the company through difficult times and make sure it is positioned for the future.
Anticipate the reaction
While some employees will be unhappy with the change in policy, the majority—those who rarely if ever take sick leave and generally have to pick up the slack for others—will appreciate the change. Quite often organizations make decisions intended to avoid backlash from a vocal minority and ignore the endorsement from a supportive (but often silent) majority.
When the questions inevitably come, be direct and honest in your answers. Explain that while the new requirement may be inconvenient for the truly sick employee, you expect overall sick-leave days to go down. You will gain credibility from your employees by taking the direct and honest route.
Keep your opinions out
I would be remiss if I didn't comment on your acknowledgement that you don't agree with the policy. It isn't easy to execute the direction set by leadership while managing and motivating employees, who may see senior leaders as out of touch with what is happening on the front lines.
Being a supervisor can be the hardest role in an organization. You are the face of the executive team but you work daily with the people getting the real work done.
The way you react will determine how much of an issue this policy change becomes. If disgruntled employees get a sympathetic response from you, the issue will linger and gain strength. If you are firm in your support of the change, the negative response will be short-lived.
You have a huge say in how much traction the negativity gets in your department.
SOURCE: Reggie Hall, Buck Consultants, Dallas, March 9, 2010
LEARN MORE: Please read how companies have been following a trend of cracking down on absenteeism as a result of the recession.
Workforce Management Online, March 2010 -- Register Now!
The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Also remember that state laws may differ from the federal law.
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 The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Also remember that state laws may differ from the federal law.

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