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When a Salesperson Wants More Time Off for Sick Leave, the Owners Find Themselves in a Quandary

They’ve had concerns about this employee since before she became ill.

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JULIE SHAEFFER WAS a very good salesperson. She was knowledgeable, detail-focused and even entertaining. Her customers loved her, and though they found her somewhat eccentric and “high maintenance,” her co-workers and managers did, too.

ABOUT REAL DEAL

Real Deal is a fictional scenario designed to read like real-life business events. The businesses and people mentioned in this story should not be confused with actual jewelry businesses and people.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kate Peterson is president and CEO of Performance Concepts, a management consultancy for jewelers. Email her at [email protected]

Julie started working with Childress Diamonds, a high-end, family-owned store in the Southwest, back in 2015. She came to Childress with a widely varied business and retail background that included several important management positions, but without any jewelry experience. Nonetheless, within a very short time, she appeared to be the perfect complement to the strong and experienced Childress sales staff. In fact, by 2017, with Julie’s help, Childress’ sales volume had doubled to nearly $4.2 Million.

In June of 2021, Julie married her second husband. Though the wedding was small, preparation seemed to consume all of Julie’s attention for months. Tom and Lisa Childress, the store’s owners, were a bit concerned by the sharp drop-off in Julie’s performance several months before the wedding, and they were alarmed at her willingness to use the store as a “control center” for her planning — but Julie had become a good friend, and they were glad to see her happy. They thought they could handle the short-term issues knowing that once the event was over, Julie would be back to full strength in the store. The rest of the staff rallied around Julie and agreed to help cover her so she could focus on her big day.

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Several months after Julie returned from her honeymoon, Lisa began to notice that she was coming in late more often than not in the mornings, and that her lunch breaks were hovering around one-and-a-half hours as opposed to the allowed 45 minutes. Punctuality had never been one of Julie’s strong suits, but the problem had grown to the point where other associates were complaining. When Lisa confronted her, Julie blamed it all on the adjustment to married life. She apologized and promised to do better. Lisa accepted Julie’s explanation and commitment to improve, though she was a little uncomfortable with what she (and the rest of the staff) saw as Julie’s declining performance and increasingly negative attitude around the store. It seemed to Lisa that she had never quite gotten back into the swing of things after the wedding, and she spent a lot of time complaining and blaming everyone else for her lack of results.

In the months following their conversation, Julie’s sales performance did improve, as did her punctuality — though late arrivals and long lunches (along with a strange pattern of calling in sick on a number of Mondays) were still an occasional problem. Store sales continued to grow steadily though, and overall, the team appeared to be working well together.

Early last June, Julie was diagnosed with breast cancer. Needless to say, Tom and Lisa, along with everyone on the team, were very upset by the news and vowed to be as supportive as possible. Julie had no short-term disability insurance and had already used all of her vacation and paid sick days for the year, but Tom and Lisa agreed that it was the right thing to continue paying Julie’s salary for the two months her doctor expected she would be out of work. They assumed that she would be back in the store (at least part time) by mid-August in time to ramp up for the 4th quarter, so they elected not to hire a new associate to fill the spot.

Julie finally returned to work with a doctor’s release on September 1, but on the 10th, just a few days before the store’s big anniversary event, she told Lisa that she really didn’t think she was ready to handle the stress of the store just yet, and that she needed to take the rest of the year off. She was adamant in her decision but was very clear about wanting to come back to her job after the first of the year.

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Tom and Lisa were in a quandary. On one hand, they wanted to be sensitive to Julie’s medical concerns, but on the other, Lisa, a breast cancer survivor herself, couldn’t help but feel that Julie was trying to use the situation to her own advantage. After all, she’d been seen at social events all over town in the past month!

While Julie did not ask for the store to continue funding her leave, she did cry to Lisa about not being able to afford to be out of work — the implication (and her expectation) being very clear. When Lisa stated directly that Julie’s paychecks would stop for the remainder of her time off, Julie looked surprised and not at all happy. In the meantime, the store was shorthanded, but with the employment situation tighter in town than they had ever seen it before, Tom and Lisa saw little hope of finding someone qualified (or at least mature and trainable who could be ready to go in time for the holiday season). For his part, Tom was concerned about the legal issues that surround replacing someone who has had documented medical problems in the past.

The Big Questions

  • What should Tom and Lisa do?
  • Can they rely on Julie’s promise to return in January?
  • Should they try to replace Julie, or should they hire someone to handle basic support tasks over the holiday season to free up more time for their seasoned salespeople? If they do choose to let her go, how will their action impact the rest of the team? Are there legal implications attached to firing someone who has had health issues in the recent past?
Jack L.
Lake Forest, CA

I would do two things. One, I would vigorously attempt to recruit Julie’s replacement, giving myself options depending on how the situation continued to evolve. Recruiting is tough these days, but worth the effort; if Tom and Lisa find no one, they’re no worse off. Two, I would have one more sit-down with Julie, impress upon her the pressures she is putting on management and team going into Q4, and, if she insisted on waiting till 1/1/23 to return, I’d insist on a doc’s note confirming her inability to work before then.

Elisa R.
Ocala, FL

As owners, we have to be the ones who make the unpopular choices, the choices that may seem unfair or mean. The owners have become “friends” with their employees, and now it looks like Julie is receiving preferential treatment to the affected staff. Develop policies and stick to them for the sake of harmony among the staff. Folks who are the victims of Julie’s inability to tell time become angry and feel as though they don’t matter to you. I also get the heartstrings that news of cancer can pull. While you can have sympathy, you cannot allow it to become the center of your operations. You cannot operate around Julie’s unfortunate circumstance. When Julie is on her game, she is great, but now she is not. It is not personal, it is BUSINESS. Hire a person to replace her. When she is able to return, offer her part-time work that does not affect operations or your staff. If the bad work habits continue, part ways immediately. Equal treatment is important to your staff.

Ursula P.
Naples, FL

Does this business have an employee handbook? If it does, the earlier and now newly arising issues would have been addressed.

Theresa L.
New Hartford, NY

First and foremost, it would be best to be honest with Julie and let her know she is a valued employee and both owners are there to support her emotionally and in any way possible throughout this difficult time, but that the store still has to be staffed according to the demands of the holiday season. Be open and honest and let Julie know that you will be hiring a replacement for her position while she is out so she can take her time getting herself better without the stress of feeling rushed. Furthermore, reiterate to Julie that once she is feeling better about coming back to work that there will be a position available for her, though it may not be the same responsibilities. There is still a place for her within the store. This allows the opportunity to get another employee up and running before the holidays, and then if Julie ends up not coming back, a replacement is already in place.

Amy C.
Grove, OK

Definitely need to set some boundaries with the employee. First, consult a lawyer or even a well-experienced HR person and find out what you need to do legally. After that, explain to her that the store has gone above and beyond to accommodate her illness. The extra pay for her regular salary is done, but she can work part-time until she regains her health or take the time off entirely. I would tell her that we would have to hire someone if someone comes along who fits the job, but we would consider taking her back full time later if no new one has worked out full-time. I am always happy to take back a good employee, but she needs to know that we need full time. Each store must stick to their rules on such matters because the next employee might expect the same and you might be legally bound to do it!

Heather W.
Des Plaines, IL

Julie’s situation is a terrible one, and they should accommodate her request for time off. She should submit a written request for leave from the store with the understanding that she is eligible for rehire when her condition allows. The store owners should immediately begin the process of hiring for the upcoming season, and when and if Julie ever comes back, address how hours will be handled at that time. In all likelihood, she won’t be prepared for full-time return for some time and may never choose to return.

Megan C.
Poulsbo, WA

We have had situations where we’ve funded employees’ personal health issues, which thankfully have been short-term. Open communication has helped us manage expectations on both sides. It’s always difficult to navigate a professional path when emotions become more of a deciding factor than what is best for the business.

It seems that good intentions were applied, but the precedent was set placing the store in an unhealthy and unprofessional position. My advice at this point is to make a decision that’s best for the store financially, have it in writing, then convey that to Julie. Consult a lawyer preemptively who is familiar with local and state employment law. We’re in an at-will state, so I can let an employee go who isn’t performing their job duties. I have to be clear on how I’ve accommodated their health issue though.

I believe that even though the job market is TOUGH, when the door is fully open and clear for a new staff person, they will be found.

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Jo G.
Oconomowoc, WI

I take it there is no employee handbook; lesson learned. I would sit her down and explain that I understand from my own health experience the burden of cancer on a body, but that business is a separate issue. Let her know if she is unable to work (by her own decision, not that of a doctor), you will have to accept her quit notice, but if possible, you would love to have her back in the future if she would like to return, provided there is a position available, but you cannot leave the position open indefinitely. If the doctor says she cannot work, she must file for Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which provides certain employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year to hold her job.

Marcus M.
Midland, TX

I’m not an attorney or the head of an HR department, but I do have a BS detector and it’s going off right now! This woman’s health issues are unfortunate, but at this point, she’s just milking the cow for all it’s worth. I’d tell her she has a position if she comes back in January, but I’m not paying her another dime until she returns. That’s super fair and puts the ball in her court. I bet she won’t come back, and that is why you should look to replace her immediately. Seeing the fact that she’s been seen bouncing around social events and the way she started behaving once she got engaged and then married tells me this girl takes advantage of people and they need to put a stop to it.

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Kate Peterson is president and CEO of Performance Concepts, a management consultancy for jewelers. Email her at [email protected].

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