In the Trenches: Small misunderstanding over medical leave causes big, big problems

Dec. 7, 2006
When an Acme employee doesn't show up and doesn't call in, due to a medical situation, she is fired, and Acme feels that's exactly what she deserves.

Acme feels that if you don’t show up, you don’t call in, you’re gone.

The Acme organization had grown over the years by manufacturing an eclectic assortment of products aimed at a diversified market, many of which were advertised on late-night television. The corporate strategy was to house the value streams in separate plants distributed over the tri-county area, siting each plant within a two-hour drive of corporate headquarters. But not every employee could be neatly assigned to a single value stream. Some were involved in on-site work that spanned multiple plants. Such employees were given a company car and an Acme credit card to cover work-related automobile expenses.
Ellen Noyes was one of the nonspecific folk who rarely worked in the same plant for three consecutive days. During the nine years she’d been with the company, Ellen was diligent about learning everything she could about managing the industrial maintenance function. She acted as a well-paid maintenance technical specialist — a coach, trainer and consultant — who worked wherever Acme needed her skills. Her time was distributed by allocation to the plants that requested her expertise during the month. She learned the location of her next project by means of a daily phone call to headquarters before the first shift started.
On a Monday morning near the end of August, she woke up feeling physically ill in a big way. She called her supervisor, Wendy Siddie, to report that she’d be unable to work that day, but planned to rest, take plenty of fluids and come to work tomorrow. During the brief conversation, Ellen mentioned that she was pregnant, but never indicated that the day’s illness was a case of morning sickness.
Ellen called Wendy again early the next morning to determine which plant needed her services. Wendy told her not to report to work unless she could bring a medical release from her doctor. Ellen said that would be fine because she was already scheduled to see her doctor on Wednesday and that she intended to be back to work the following day.
Wendy never suspected that Ellen meant that the doctor’s appointment was scheduled for nine days hence. Ellen never realized her meaning was misunderstood.
Thinking the matter was settled by means of the medical leave that Wendy mandated, Ellen never bothered to make contact with her boss or anyone else at Acme headquarters. Early on Saturday morning, there was a knock on her front door. Ellen was surprised to find Acme’s security chief decked out in full uniform demanding, in his most officious manner, the keys to the company car and the Acme credit card.
Ellen invited him in for a moment while she tried to contact someone at Acme for clarification or explanation. She didn’t have the number for Wendy’s home or mobile phone. She knew Acme wouldn’t be open on Monday, Labor Day. She became desperate while the nice man standing there was rapidly losing patience with her and the fact that he had this lame [i]ad hoc[i] weekend assignment, which caused him to miss his son’s championship game in the midget soccer league. The best Ellen could do was leave a voice mail on Wendy’s office phone. Lacking immediate clarification on what she knew to be some big mistake, Ellen felt she had no choice but to hand over the keys and card.
On Tuesday morning, Ellen again tried to contact Wendy for an explanation. Wendy told Ellen to attend a meeting at headquarters on Wednesday afternoon.
Ellen’s day went downhill rapidly, starting with a 90-minute commute via a series of interconnecting public transit rides. She arrived at the meeting 15 minutes late and Irving Parke, Acme’s HR director, told Ellen that her situation fell under the company rule requiring that any employee who was absent for three consecutive days and didn’t call their supervisor each day was considered to have resigned from the company. That’s why Acme retrieved the car and card.
Upon hearing this, Ellen became outraged. She insisted that Wendy put her on involuntary leave with a directive that a doctor’s medical release would be necessary before Ellen could return. She insisted that Wendy knew about the scheduled visit to the doctor.
Ellen insisted that Irving either get Wendy into this meeting or put her on the speakerphone to explain what’s going on here. Irving told Ellen that Wendy is out of town for two weeks attending a family event and wouldn’t be available until she returned.
With her possible defenses and stalls rapidly vanishing, Ellen vehemently insisted that Acme fired her when she was on a medical leave she didn’t even want. After Ellen’s rant slowed down a bit, Irving merely said this question didn’t concern him. He had no proof that any of what she claimed as a defense was true. All he knew was that Wendy had canceled Ellen’s medical leave and authorized the termination last Friday.
[i]How could this situation have been avoided? Is the telephone the most effective way to manage the local field team? To what extent should an employee be given the benefit of the doubt? Is there any effective way to document verbal communications? Were both sides equally at fault for not being more specific in their communications? Shouldn’t the supervisor have called Ellen back after she did not report to work, if the supervisor was expecting her to do so? Isn’t the supervisor obligated to provide some sort of notice to the employee before the termination?

An academician says:
This sounds like a comedy (or tragedy) of errors.
For starters, I don’t think Wendy had any authority to ask for a medical release, at least in the way she did. If she thought that Ellen’s medical condition was of concern, then she should have gone to HR (and again to Ellen) to clarify the situation and the process.
But then Ellen should have known that one isn’t put on medical leave via a phone conversation that asks for a medical release. There is a formal process involved in medical leaves or any other leave. While employees might not know the exact process, they should be aware that it does not occur via a short phone call from the supervisor.
One of the primary duties (maybe the primary duty) of the supervisor is to keep track of the work and the people who do it. That’s the only way you will get the work done. Wendy didn’t keep track of Ellen. She should have been in daily contact with her. How else would she know when and where to give Ellen a work assignment?
Finally, the termination was bizarre and inappropriate. Wendy far exceeded her authority in terminating Ellen, and the way she did it would certainly cause some bad feelings among other employees. There is a formal process, usually conducted by HR, which documents the evidence for termination and hopefully takes an objective view of the behavior to determine if termination is justified. This process should be fair and conducted in a manner that avoids any legal action by the employee.
Another bad day for Acme.
[i]Professor Homer H. Johnson, Ph.D.
Loyola University Chicago
(312) 915-6682
[email protected][i]

An attorney says:
This scenario illustrates my long held belief that failure to communicate ends as many employment relationships as it does marriages.
Ellen’s poor communication skills earned her precisely what she got - a place in the unemployment line. First, her failure to tell her supervisor the reason for her absence precluded that absence from qualifying as leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Any absence due to pregnancy-related issues qualifies as FMLA leave, and Ellen’s job would have been protected had she explained the pregnancy was the reason for her absence.
Second, when Ellen told her supervisor on Tuesday that she was scheduled to see her doctor on Wednesday, Wendy was entitled to assume she meant the following day. Coupled with Ellen’s assurance that she would return to work the following day, Wendy legitimately understood that Ellen would return to work on Wednesday. Ellen’s failure to return to work or call for three consecutive days fell squarely within the company’s policy, a common policy in American workplaces.
It’s easy to document verbal conversations. All Ellen had to do was send a note to her supervisor confirming that she was scheduled to see her doctor on a specific date. That would have allowed Wendy the opportunity to request more information or perhaps to place Ellen on leave until she had seen her doctor.
Wendy had no obligation to telephone Ellen when she didn’t hear from her subordinate. An employee is free to leave employment at any time, and a common way of doing so, although not the preferred method, is to stop reporting to work or calling in. That is precisely what Ellen did.
Some employers do provide a warning letter to an employee who has stopped reporting to work or communicating with the company, advising the employee that failure to report by a certain date or provide a doctor’s excuse will result in termination. But Acme had no obligation to do so in this case, and Ellen is the unfortunate victim of her own poor communication skills.
Wouldn’t an employee who was concerned about keeping her job either communicate more clearly or call her supervisor during a nine-day absence?
[i]Julie Badel, partner
Epstein Becker & Green, P.C.
(312) 499-1418
[email protected][i]

A corporate consultant says:
What a colossal mess. And every person involved in the case bears some responsibility.
Perhaps the worst offenses here are, in my opinion, on Wendy's shoulders. Who is Wendy to put someone on medical leave without a medically valid requirement for it? And why on earth treat a reliable, diligent, nine-year employee as having resigned without any further discussion? Wendy initiated no calls to Ellen; she made no effort to retain this valuable employee. For all Wendy knew, Ellen could have been dead. The only communication she initiated with Ellen was to send a security officer to Ellen's home. Nice touch. Further, Wendy apparently failed to document the flow of events relevant to this case, so that, if something happened to her while at her family event, relevant others in the organization would be adequately briefed. And then, having terminated Ellen, Karen instructs Ellen to attend a company meeting that Karen herself won't even be attending, and she doesn't prepare the person who'll be meeting with Ellen? This is the behavior of someone in a supervisory role?
As for Ellen, it's just inexcusable that someone of her professional experience wouldn’t be specific about (1) a nine-day absence; or (2) not being fluent with company policy requiring daily call-ins. How could she have thought that taking a nine-day absence wouldn’t constitute medical leave? And if she did think she was on medical leave, why didn't she insist on documentation? She can't have it both ways: on one hand saying she never meant to be taking medical leave and on the other hand claim there was no need to adhere to daily call-ins.
As for Irving, (who for some inexplicable reason managed to secure an HR role at Acme), how can this case not concern him? What an outrageous response to what is clearly a personnel issue. Further, he apparently agreed to schedule the meeting, but has done no due diligence whatsoever to prepare for a discussion about a termination. Just exactly what does he think should concern an HR director?
Looks like Acme wanted to get rid of Ellen once she became pregnant. Indeed, I find it more palatable to impute this motive to Acme than to impute the complete absence of motive, which could only mean that they're astonishingly sloppy, tragically inept, and wholly disengaged from at least one long-term employee.
[i]Francie Dalton
Dalton Alliances Inc.
(410) 715-0484
[email protected][i]

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