Can You Really Dismiss an Employee Who Is Out Sick?

Julie Shenkman
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A wide variety of medical issues can keep an employee away from work, leaving employers to deal with an unexpected absence. Although employers should always be understanding of these circumstances, even for long-term sick leave, such absences can place great strain on small and larger businesses alike. For this reason, dismissing the employee is an option under certain circumstances. Learn the proper procedures before deciding whether to let go of a worker on sick leave.

Depending on the industry, the size of the company and other factors, an employee on long-term sick leave can cause unanticipated hardship for a business. For instance, you may need to hire and train a temporary replacement to fulfill the employee's duties. Employers can't discriminate against employees for medical reasons, but they can dismiss an employee if the sick leave causes undue hardship. In other words, the company shouldn't have to retain an employee on long-term sick leave if it causes great harm to the business. However, the employer should only dismiss the employee if he has exhausted all other options.

A good employer always treats an employee on sick leave fairly, so before making any decisions, seek legal counsel or speak with HR specialists to avoid any actions that could be considered discrimination. Such actions could potentially lead to damaging lawsuits down the road. Remain in constant communication with the employee about what his options are and what you are doing regarding the matter.

Even if the employee gives you a doctor's note, investigate deeper to ensure you have all the facts on the table. Seek detailed, documented medical assessments to determine the actual limitations of the employee given the situation. Before making any decisions about dismissing an employee on sick leave, take time to review the employee's personnel file. If he was already at risk of termination before the sick leave, such as receiving warnings and suspensions, this can help your cause in case the employee doesn't take the termination well.

Next, review all your obligations as an employer, confirming whether the employee is eligible for any sick leave or disability benefits. If your business offers no benefits, provide him with an employment history so he can seek governmental assistance.

Before thinking about termination, work with the employee and your HR team to figure out what adjustments you can make to accommodate the employee despite his condition. For instance, he might be able to return to work with lighter work loads or reduced work hours. If you can't agree on a solution, consider offering another position within the company. These discussions should take place in a meeting at the workplace, at the patient's home or over the phone.

If you are still unable to come to an agreement or the employee is unwilling to compromise, follow procedures specified in the employment contract to give the employee the proper notice. Be sure to look over the company's termination policies. In general, consider termination if the employee has been on sick leave for at least four months.

Dismissing an employee can be a hard choice, particularly if he is already experiencing a medical issue. However, if it is necessary for the health of the company, always follow proper procedures to give the employee on sick leave every chance to remain with the company.

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