How should I approach an employee who takes way too many breaks?
Company Culture

This week, Collage’s very own Sophia Jaffer, CHRP, takes on Good Question. As our company’s very first hire (!!), she has played an invaluable role in shaping our product and our culture. Equal parts HR and client service, Sophia brings a balanced perspective no matter how challenging the situation.

Here, she applies her signature level-headed approach to help one of our readers confront an absentee employee. Do you have your own workplace question? Submit it anonymously here.

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Q:

About 2-3 times per week, one of our team members takes a 90-minute break in the middle of the afternoon. He doesn’t say where he’s going, just gets up and leaves. We have a flexible work policy, but I’m worried this is pushing the limits and setting a bad example for the rest of the team. I’ve casually asked him where he’s going, but he doesn’t answer. The quality of his work isn’t suffering, but it’s never been ‘exceptional’ either.

I don’t want to revoke our flexible hours for the entire company because of this one worker.
Am I allowed to either demand an explanation from him or flat-out prevent him from taking so many breaks?

A:

While this is a tricky question, I can assure you, you’re not the first to have asked it! If I had to guess, I would bet that more companies have had to deal with this than haven’t. Flexible work policies are wonderful, but they’re also a “loaded” perk, in that they come with implied trust.

The real issue in these casesand the one you most want to avoidis the effect the actions of this one employee can have on your whole team. If he acts like he’s above the rules, others may begin to feel unfairly treated – perhaps even resentful. The worst case scenario is others mimicking this behaviour, leaving you with a disengaged and absentee workforce. But before we get too ahead of ourselves, know that you’re already on the right path by recognizing the issue and placing value on the solution.

The real issue is if others start mimicking this behaviour, leaving you with a disengaged and absentee workforce.

Your first step is to do a quick review of the rest of your team members. Consider if you’ve noticed or heard of other employees “abusing” the flexible work hours policy or if this employee is truly acting outside the norm. I’m big on fairness. Any action you take to resolve this issue has to be applied equally from the start.

Let’s assume the best case: the policy is working well for the rest of your team. That’s great! Now you know where to focus your attention.

Peel back the layers

It seems pretty clear that this employee has something going on that he’s not comfortable sharing. As a people manager, resist the urge to pull it out of him, or worse, jump to conclusions about his motivations. Instead, try to uncover communication barriers by considering the following:

  •  Has your employee recently taken on a new role or body of work?
  • Are you aware of a recent milestone (positive or negative) in this employee’s life?
  • Do your team members, including this individual, know who to talk to if they are overwhelmed, stressed, or unclear about their role?
  • Are your leaders having regular check-ins to make sure their teams have the tools they need to do their work?
  • Have you clearly communicated to your team the benefits and resources they have access to if they’re in need?
  •  Does your company encourage openness and trust? How so?

Asking these questions can help you approach the situation with less bias. You may even uncover whether the problem has more to do with your company’s culture and communication than with the employee in question.

Asking these questions can help you approach the situation with less bias.

While you think about those questions, here are some people management dos and donts so you can take action. 

Do start documenting absences

If you haven’t been doing this, start now. We all know the most important rule in HR: CYAcover your ass! Write down and store the days and times this employee is away from his desk. Pro tip: you can use Collage’s private notes section, which stores notes privately and automatically includes a time-stamp. If there is a confrontation in the future, you’ll have a stronger case. More importantly, it will help you understand if he’s truly gone for as long as you think and if his absences have a recurring pattern.

Don’t punish everyone

Avoid the instinct to send a company-wide memo re-iterating or revoking your flexible work policy. I understand that this is tempting because it’s a less direct, and therefore less offensive way to get through to the employee in question. But I promise you won’t get the results you’re looking for.

This is because a flexible hours policy is based on trust. You trust your employees to do their best work based on their hectic life schedules. In return, they trust that you are not monitoring their every move.

Avoid the instinct to send a company-wide memo. I understand this is tempting…but you won’t get the results you’re looking for.

Sending a ‘friendly’ reminder puts that trust into question and can have the opposite effect you’re looking for. Employees who aren’t doing anything wrong may feel targeted. Fingers will be pointed. In short, all that trust will wear away.

As for the employee in question? If he hasn’t paid mind to the policy so far, the idea that this will be the turning point is highly unlikely.

Don’t create a problem where there isn’t one

Don’t suddenly start to monitor this employee’s performance if performance isn’t the issue. Quality of work is important, but in this case, given that it hasn’t significantly changed, I wouldn’t focus on it. To suddenly begin monitoring performance and hold this employee to a new standard avoids the matter at hand and could push the employee over the edge. (i.e, if they are disengaged, they’ll be further disengaged. If they are dealing with a health or family problem, you’ll only add to their stress.)

Do put empathy and compassion first

While you don’t have the right to demand an explanation, you do have a responsibility to offer support so that your employee can do their best work. Since he seems to want to keep this private, go gently and focus on your concern for the team rather than his ‘wrongdoing’.

  • Invite the employee for a coffee outside of the office, as this could help them feel more relaxed and willing to open up
  • Begin the conversation by stating that this isn’t a disciplinary meeting. Let them know that you’ve noticed the breaks and that you’re simply concerned
  • Instead of critiquing the employee’s behaviour, focus on the outcome: the disruption the behaviour may cause to others on the team
  • Remind them that this is confidential and you’re here to help

If at this point they do open up, you’re on the right path. Here are three likely outcomes for your employee’s extended breaks and how you can take action:

  1. They are disengaged. If your employee indicates that they are bored at work, feeling unchallenged, or otherwise disengaged, you need to step up. Offer learning and development opportunities, invite them to take on a new project or provide additional responsibility and ownership within their role.
  2. They are overwhelmed. Those breaks might actually be an escape. Work with the employee to identify roadblocks.
  3. They have a family or health issue. If an employee chooses to shares this with you (keyword: choose. They are under no obligation), be prepared to offer support and accommodation. Inform them of their group benefits plan, the company EAP, or any government mandated leaves they have access to (i.e. personal emergency leave, caretaker leave, etc.) If it is a health issue, you may have a duty to accommodate them under the Human Rights Act, so read up and continue to offer support.

Do set expectations

A fourth possibility is that they simply interpret a ‘flexible hours policy’ to mean they can take as many breaks as they want as often as they want. Maybe he’s going home for a nap and then continues his work later in the evening. That’s not necessarily wrong, but it may not jive with your business needs.

If this is the case, explain that flexible hours come with the expectation that team members are available to participate in important meetings and calls during regular work hours. Being away unexpectedly for a long period of time can be disruptive to the team and have a negative impact on coworkers.

Once you both have an understanding of each other’s needs, I’m confident you can find a way to work together that’s in the best interest of the team.

Once you both have an understanding of each other’s needs, I’m confident you can find a way to work together that’s in the best interest of the team.

Now, what if the employee doesn’t open up? In this case, simply be honest and tell them that during working hours, your employees are your concern. Reiterate that you can offer support if they are willing to ask and that your door is open if they want to chat in the future.

Whichever way the conversation goes, I recommend that you document it. Send a simple follow-up to acknowledge the chat along with any resources (i.e. your benefits booklet or leave policy) that may be relevant. And after all that work, make sure you take a break for yourself.

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Thank you, Sophia! We simply wouldn’t be the same without you <3 If you have an HR question you’d like answered by an HR pro, submit it anonymously.