Dear David,

I have a coworker who has FMLA approval (Federal Medical Leave Act), and I think she abuses it. She doesn’t come to work on time. Multiple times she has run out of the office, citing various personal issues—issues not related to her FMLA approved issues.

We have all agreed as a team that if we are not able to be on time, or need to leave early, or have an appointment, we will tell each other by text or in person. She has only followed through on this once. She might tell someone in leadership, but then leadership doesn’t let the team know. It is an ongoing problem. I have met with her and described the gap between expectation and her behavior. I cited ten instances of when this has occurred. She still takes no responsibility. Leadership members are aware, but they avoid conflict and have asked me to hold her accountable. I have no official authority. What is my next step?


Dear Unauthorized,

Your situation sounds very frustrating. Your coworker is not taking responsibility, your leaders are not stepping up, and you’ve tried to hold her accountable with no success. I admire your patience and resolve.

I want to help you. I’ll share a few ideas. However, I’m not optimistic that your coworker will change unless her managers require it, and it doesn’t sound as if they will. Let’s consider the various aspects of your situation.

FMLA Statute. The purpose of the FMLA statute is: “To balance the demands of the workplace with the needs of families . . . , and to allow employees to take reasonable leave for medical reasons . . . ” To accomplish this purpose, it permits, “Up to 12 workweeks or up to 480 hours of job-protected unpaid leave for family and medical reasons during a 12-month period.”

Notice two points: The statute assumes a balance between the needs of workplaces and families—that both will need to absorb some side effects for the greater good. Second, it puts a time limit on the side effects a workplace needs to absorb.

Your Leaders. It sounds as if your leaders believe your coworker’s actions are acceptable—a side effect they expect to absorb as a part of the FMLA statute. And they expect you and your team to absorb or manage the side effects as well. I’d like to raise a few questions related to this:

    1. Ask yourself what you really want long term—for yourself, your coworker, and the team. For example, if you take a long-term view, say two years out, will your coworker’s FMLA issues go away? Will she return to being a good coworker? Basically, is this a short-term issue?
    2. Ask yourself whether you agree with your leaders—that the problems you are experiencing are within the scope of the FMLA’s broad intent—and whether the legal risks of confronting the problems outweigh the costs.
    3. Your leaders would like you and the others on your team to backfill for your co-worker while she is on leave. Is this possible? Or do you think your leaders need to take additional steps, such as hire a temporary worker to fill in? If your team needs short-term help, document the need and take it to your leaders.

Reflecting on these questions, I hope, provides you greater insight and clarity regarding the situation.

Yourself. Your frustration could easily get you into trouble. Remember, you don’t have your leaders’ support. They say they want you to hold your coworker accountable, but I don’t buy it. Here is my story: I think they are mostly saying that they won’t be the ones to hold her accountable—perhaps for fear of violating FMLA statutes. My guess is they want you to focus on getting the work done, while avoiding conflicts and any legal liabilities. The more you make an issue of your colleague’s behavior, the more your leaders may come to see you as the problem.

But don’t let my story prevent you from speaking up. If I were you, I’d check out my story with your leaders, taking care to make it safe for them, so they share their honest perspective.

Let’s suppose you decide you need to live with this situation for the next few months. How do you get your heart right? You don’t want to feel resentment toward your coworker or your leaders. This resentment won’t help you be a better person and is likely to leak out in your words and actions.

I’ll offer a few ideas, but I’m not sure which, if any, will work for you. First, try to identify and empathize with your co-worker’s situation. Look for what you can respect about her. For example, it sounds as if her life is difficult in many ways, and yet she is trying to stay employed. Second, tell yourself that this situation is limited in time. When you look back at it five years from now, it won’t matter. Third, focus on being the person you want to be. Be a role model for caring and patience. Use this circumstance as a test to demonstrate to yourself who you really are.

Your Coworker. Drawing on skills from Crucial Accountability, you could address your coworker’s motivation and ability. I would do so not with the intent to change your coworker’s short-term actions, but to make sure that when she completes her FMLA leave, she returns as a valued member of your team.

  • Motivation: Should you address the problem as a matter of motivation, I worry your coworker will feel excluded and punished by the team. That would violate the whole purpose of FMLA and could create long-term damage to her relationship with the team. Ask yourself what you and your team can do to let her know she is still a valued member of your team. She needs to know that her team is there for her in her time of need.
  • Ability: If you approach the problem as a matter of ability, ask yourself what you and your team can do to backfill for your coworker. Are there ways you can help her stay updated on information she misses? Can you extend her a lifeline or job partner who makes sure she doesn’t get left out or left behind?

Again, I respect your actions, your patience, and your persistence. I hope some of these suggestions help.

Best of luck,

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