My employee has been missing a tremendous amount of work lately and has called in at least four times this past month. As a customer service representative, her role is crucial to both our customers, as well as other employees within our department, as our call volume is busy this time of year. We are a remote location with very few resources to rely upon. I've asked our employee the reasons for her absences and each time she vaguely states that it's a "personal thing". Should I demand an answer more specific than this and state that I must know the reason in order for her to keep her job? Also, what can I say to other employees about the situation? Anything? I certainly don't want to get into any legal trouble although I feel foolish by not providing any answers or explanations to the others.
With the number of layoffs occurring today it seems odd that you are even dealing with this type of behavior. Most employees are remaining on best behavior or at least attempting to fly under the radar so as not to become a casualty of the next reduction in force. One of my first questions is whether or not you have contacted someone in your HR department? Being a remote location, you may not have in-person access to this support, however there should be someone maybe even at your corporate office who you could call to guide you through the organizational attendance policies. As the verbal coaching hasn't produced the desired outcome, I would suggest enacting the disciplinary process, in accordance with your policy. Most companies offer clear guidelines around absenteeism. When she describes her issue being personal, I would refrain from asking for additional details, as the entire conversation could be misinterpreted on her end as bullying or even harassment. Although it sounds like you are attempting to understand the situation to potentially offer compassion, her reason for missing work isn't the issue. The issue is that she is not at work.
One of the mistakes managers make is by asking the employee whether the absences are due to some sort of illness. Some acutally even attempt to explain the company's FMLA program or "rights" of the employee for additional excused time away. My guidance would be to wait for the employee to essentially volunteer this need for FMLA, in which would be the perfect time to hold this discussion. Depending on the size of your business, she may not even be eligible for this coverage anyway. The other issue to be mindful of is HIPPA, which governs confidentiality of employee medical issues. If for instance this employee volunteers to you that the reason she is missing work is due to an illness, you need to keep this information entirely confidential, especially with her co-workers. If her co-workers are pressing you to share why she is absent, you can easily share that you are "handling the situation" and leave it at that. Here again if she does share that it's an illness, you may seek addtional HR or legal counsel to verify if the illness is covered under a serious health condition definition (i.e. ADA, FMLA).
In the end, even if the employee has a covered medical condition, it doesn't exclude them from the need to perform the essential functions of the role. No where does the law state that you need to hire a full time replacement for the absent employee. Your employee needs to be at work, performing their job, with reasonable accomodations (if requested and warranted), by the employer. I would suggest you follow consistency principles with your policy when applying disciplinary action, as well as ensure the conversations are held behind closed doors. If your organization utilizes final written warnings, provide one to her. In today's world, documentation is key. You may need to produce these documents if called to an unemployment hearing and/or to respond to a potential charge of wrongful termination. It sounds as if you've been fairly gracious thus far, so all you need to do now is tighten the reigns.