According to online magazine HRFuture, “recent statistics have shown that the average person takes 4.1 days unplanned sick leave per year”. This costs South Africa R19billion in lost productivity, annually. When it comes to the approval and administration of sick leave, many a line manager, payroll officer and/or HR department has had to contend with the awkward situation of dealing with suspicions surrounding dodgy sick leave applications.
Presently, during these floundering economic times, employees who decide to take a “Benylin Day”[i], when in reality they’re not genuinely ill enough to be taking a day’s sick leave, has turned into a colossal problem for South African organisations.
In Grobler and Warnich’s book, Human Resource Management in South Africa[ii], it’s clear that sick leave abuse correlates with employee loyalty. This ought to a profound realisation for any payroll and HR manager: if your organisation is dealing with sick leave abuse, then you are well-justified in your questioning of the loyalty of your employees to the organisation, …and to their job too.
With a clearer understanding of the full spectrum of sick leave loopholes that employees sometimes use to bamboozle the system, you stand a much-improved chance of successfully remedying the situation — fast and efficiently.
So, just what is it that you ought to be doing? What surefire steps, when taken, will form the preferred strategy that your organisation could implement in order to put a decisive stop to ongoing sick leave abuses by your employees?
1. Put a watertight sick leave policy in place
A formal sick leave policy need not be a burden to draft and implement. The online HR portal WorkInfo.com offers an excellent example of a two-pager policy that your organisation could adapt for its own use — this is a perfectly suitable policy for micro enterprises (with few staff), as well as for larger organisations (with a significant number of employees).
Be sure that all your employees are aware of the most current sick leave policy by ensuring that regular information sessions and update discussions are facilitated by line management.
When drafting your policy, there is a distinction to be aware of though: the National HR Directory, HRWorks.co.za, says that the Basic Condition of Employment Act’s (BCEA) provisions for sick leave “do not apply when an employee is unable to work as a result of incapacity due to an occupational injury or disease”. Your sick leave policy must clarify this important distinction, and clearly state that this situation calls for Special Leave application, with the resultant payment (for this category of leave) being reimbursed by the relevant authority.[iii]
2. Closely administer and keep track of employee sick leave
Obtaining proof of incapacity is key. This is done by insisting on a medical certificate that was issued by a registered medical professional (or any other person) entitled to diagnose and treat a patient. However, such medical professional must be registred with a professional council established by an Act of Parliament. Therefore, this excludes medial certificates issued by traditional healers, sangomas, and/or so-called “witch doctors”[iv].
Absence, when the employee was treated by a practitioner that was not registered with a registered professional council, should have their time of absence deducted from their annual leave or processed as unpaid leave[v]. Leave substitution however, is not an advisable practice — be sure your sick leave policy clarifies this fact: annual leave should not be substituted for sick leave.
If an employee cannot produce a medical certificate when asked for one, then you ought to treat this as a disciplinary issue, not incapacity. Consequently, you are then well within your rights to charge the employee with unauthorised absence from work, and deduct it from his annual leave or make him take the time as unpaid leave. Punitive measures such as these may seem harsh, but experience has proven—time and again—that they act as a good deterrent to stave off the employee temptation to commit this type of sick leave fraud.
When falling ill whilst at work and the employee subsequently needs to leave work due to illness, to avoid abuse creeping in, it is advised that an “application for leave” form be completed for the time that will be taken off. Alternatively, line management may request that the time to be worked in at a later date or occasion.[vi]
3. Conduct regular ‘authenticity’ audits on medical certificates
A legitimate, valid medical certificate must clearly indicate the practitioner’s name, address, qualification and signature. The “sick note” must also include: the employee’s name, details of the employee’s illness (including the date and time of the doctor’s visit and a clear indication that the patient was deemed to be unfit for work).
Dishonest employees falsify their medical certificates by copying an old medical certificate and simply altering the dates, and/or inserting a fake medical practice registration number, phone number, doctor’s name and signature. When in doubt, consider doing a quick “Google search” to verify all details of the practice online. If you’re unable to confirm the relationship between the phone number and registration number, then the medical certificate is probably a fake[vii].
Additionally, consider making a personal visit to the medical professional’s practice. There is no harm done by transparently conducting these intermittent audits — and once your staff learn that regular audit-staff engage in this follow-practice, the temptation for them to present fraudulent medical certificates is greatly reduced.
Medical certificates presented from traditional healers, Sangomas, etc., can only be rejected if your organisation is “not bound by a collective agreement to accept such certificates.”[viii] In extreme cases, you may even wish to consider “sending through a ‘test patient’ to see if a medical practitioner is ‘cooking’ medical certificates”[ix]
If you suspect the doctor has issued a certificate when the employee wasn’t ill, you can report this doctor to the Health Professions Council of South Africa. Not sure how to tell when your employee has given you a fake certificate? — further reading.
4. CAUTION — ill-considered dismissals could result in “egg on your face”
In the case of Mthethwa v Capitol Caterers (2007, 5 BALR 469) an employee was dismissed after he was off ill from work for two weeks. The CCMA ordered the employer to reinstate him with full back-pay, because the employer had failed to follow the incapacity laws.[x] Inconsistently applied discipline and disciplinary processes follow prior to the dismissal of employee dismissal ought to be avoided at all costs.
Lia Marus, editor of HRPulse, recommends the following steps be taken, should you suspect that sick leave is being abused at your company:
|· Analyse leave patterns to see if anyone is perhaps abusing leave — for example, people always taking a sick day before or after a long weekend.
· Call a counselling session with the employee, in order to discuss his/her absenteeism rate. At this meeting, talk to the employee about correcting their behaviour.
· Monitor the employee to see if the corrective action has been successful.
· If the employee does not abide by the proposed corrective action and still takes sick leave without being able to produce proof that he has actually been sick (or he hasn’t followed the proper procedures with regard to letting you know that he won’t be at work), then you are warranted in proceeding the with institution of disciplinary action.
· If an employee’s abuse of sick leave still doesn’t improve, proceed with a more formal disciplinary hearing.
· Importantly: impose progressive disciplinary measures — e.g. first a verbal warning, then a first written warning, followed by a final written warning.
· If the employee still doesn’t comply, the next (and final progressive disciplinary step) would be a dismissal. This is a fair process.
5. Be a caring, but firm and fair employer
Ian Hurst, CEO at Paymaster Payroll affirms that “employers ought never to forget the importance of being a caring, but firm and fair employer that recognises that the employees of an organisation are a human capital investment”. Hurst is an advocate of the win-win situation. Consequently, consider getting to the root of the cause of an employee’s sick leave abuse. Be willing to help an employee sort out his/her underlying problem that may be prompting them to resort to sick leave abuse; the chances are good that this may end up strengthening the employer/employee relationship too.
Employee acts of desperation, naivety or ignorance, will continue to tempt them to abuse their sick leave, particularly if they’ve never been advised of the certain fact that what they’re doing is wrong and could see them losing their job. Remind them that they are cultivating a harmful reputation for themselves as one who is dishonest and a fraudster.
Are you presently frustrated by the prevalence of sick leave abuse in your organisation? You are invited to discuss tried-and-tested ways in which the Paymaster automated payroll system can be leveraged to your best advantage in order to stop sick leave abuse in its tracks. — Contact Ian Hurst at Paymaster
[i] http://www.hrfuture.net/wellness/sick-days-cost-r19-billion-annually.php?Itemid=183 [Accessed 12 Dec 2015]
[ii] Human Resource Management in South Africa: Pieter A. Grobler, Surette Warnich: 9781408019511: Amazon.com: Books, 2015.
[iii] http://www.hrworks.co.za/policies?pid=61&sid=185:Sick-Leave-Policy [Accessed 8 Dec 2015]
[iv] http://www.labourguide.co.za/conditions-of-employment/437-types-of-leave [Accessed 10 Dec 2015]
[vi] http://www.hrworks.co.za/policies?pid=61&sid=185:Sick-Leave-Policy [Accessed 12 Dec 2015]
[vii] http://www.careers24.com/career-advice/management-advice/how-to-tell-if-a-medical-certificate-is-fake-20150908 [Accessed 12 Dec 2015]
[ix] http://www.hrpulse.co.za/employee-management/leave/229905-how-to-deal-with-fraudulent-medical-certificates [Accessed 8 Dec 2015]
[x] http://www.labourguide.co.za/poor-performances/445-lra-provides-strong-protection-for-sick-disabled [Accessed 8 Dec 2015]