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Ask the Experts

My Secretary Is Absent a Lot

By The Editors

Question: My secretary is sick and absent from work a lot. Yet I need someone here every day to help me. What can I do?


Pamela Sachs: A few years ago we allotted employees a specified amount of paid time off (PTO) per calendar year for any purpose — that is, sick time, personal time, and vacation time are consolidated into one paid leave package. This discourages employees from taking sick days off when they are not sick, as those absences now cut into what could be their vacation time.

For absences due to serious illness and for coverage on those days of unexpected (and expected) absences, we have instituted “teams” of two secretaries. Each attorney is familiar with the person who is his or her dedicated backup secretary. Should the backup secretary become overwhelmed, management is contacted and work is distributed among other staff members.

We have spent a great deal of time on cross-training staff out of their comfort zone so they can provide coverage for different attorneys and practice groups as needed. Attorneys have seen positive results on workflow, and they have adjusted well to occasionally working with another assistant. The attorneys have also attended training classes in Microsoft Office and Adobe programs so they can be more self-sufficient in a pinch.

If you have PTO or vacation and sick day policies in place and a staff member has excessive unexpected absences, it becomes a performance issue. In our firm they are ineligible for raises or bonuses until there is resolution. We insist on medical verification for the frequent absences and are mindful of intermittent leave under Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provisions. Occasionally, we look at implementing paid and unpaid leave options or part-time schedules until the employee is well enough to work the expected regular schedule. We also have mandatory referrals to our Employee Assistance Program so the frequently absent employee can take advantage of complimentary services that may assist in returning that employee to good health and a regular work schedule.

Pamela C. Sachs, CLM, SPHR, SHRM-SCP is the Director of Human Resources at Robinson Bradshaw in North Carolina. She is responsible for recruiting, selection, training and development, performance evaluation, staff restructuring, salary administration, employee relations, benefits administration, HR data systems, job design and resource allocation. With more than 25 years of experience managing operations, accounting and personnel in law firms, she also serves as the Vice President of the Charlotte Chapter of ALA.

Cindy Snook: First, find out if the secretary is really sick or if there is something else going on in his or her life that is having an effect on attendance. Then I would sit down with that secretary and explain that good attendance is a requirement of the job. Explain the impact that the secretary’s absenteeism has on his or her co-workers, and emphasize how such absenteeism risks having important client tasks fall through the cracks.

It is appropriate to tell them that their continued absences could lead to disciplinary actions and possibly termination should it not improve. It is always a good idea to have a policy that requires a doctor’s note after three consecutive days of absence. This helps prevent employees from taking sick days when they are not really sick.

Cindy Snook, PHR, has more than 20 years of management experience in the legal profession. She is the Director of Human Resources for Downey Brand, LLP in Sacramento. Snook is also the Past President of the Sacramento Valley Legal Administrator’s Association and has held various positions on that chapter’s Board of Directors. She served for two years as a Regional Officer for the international Association of Legal Administrators and has been a frequent speaker at American River College regarding Law Firm Management.

Questions About Law Firm Management?

Not every law firm has a full-time administrator or professional management to guide them. Send us your questions via email, or use the comment section below, and we’ll pass them on to the experts at the Association of Legal Administrators. Watch for the best ones here in “Ask the Experts.”

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Categories: Ask the Experts, Daily Dispatch, Law Firm People Management
Originally published January 25, 2016
Last updated April 14, 2018
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