Management Matters: Ask for Clarification

By: Dr. Steve Cohen // 913.927.0229

HR Solutions On Call


When an employee is going to be absent and calls in, what information can you ask for? What can or should you do with the information?  

Are there any limitations or prohibitions on the type and amount of information you can ask for?  Answer is no, not really.  I had a client ask me about this and it led to an interesting discussion that I thought might be relevant to you.   So, in this call from my client, who has a Veterinarian clinic, a good employee called in indicating that she would not be available for work because she said that she had a “small electrical fire.”  This Veterinarian clinic is a very busy place and the Veterinarian wondered “how big a fire occurred?”   If it was a “small fire” then why couldn’t she come into work and deal with the “small” matter after work?  Actually the Veterinarian did pursue the questioning and feedback was that the employee was “pissed” about the questioning.   

Firstly, I think it is always fair to seek clarification about the reason that work is going to be missed.  Any owner or manager wants to see the job be the priority but also realizes that other priorities do exist in the employee’s life.  In this example, the employee said it was a small fire. Well, was it because an electrical outlet sparked and sent some smoke into the room?   Why should that subordinate work?  Was it bigger than that?  Is this a high maintenance/ drama type person who overreacts or was it really a bigger fire and the employee is just understating the situation?   

Usually it is a health related reason that causes the employee to call in.   There are HIPPA considerations which afford the employee a great deal of privacy related rights.  If the reason has to do with a health problem, you as the employer are entitled to ask for some information, the HIPPA restrictions are in place to keep you from speaking openly  about the health care matters of an employee to other employees.  Confidentiality around personal health information is nothing new to employers.  Even health related information has to be kept in a separate location from the other information contained in the  employee files.  

In the original scenario, I was told that the employee was “pissed” that the clarification was sought out. It seemed to this employee that she was asked for too much information.  The Vet asked me if she should address the matter and how to address it.   My view is to always address the “elephant in the room.” It is rarely a good idea to ignore problems.  When that happens they tend to grow hair and get ugly!  I suggested that the Vet address the matter with the employee by providing her with her own clarification regarding why she asked so many questions.  A few example points and questions could be:  I was worried about you.  I was not trying to be nosy but a house fire can be devastating so I wanted to know the extent of the situation so I could react accordingly.   My intention is to show you I care about you and your situation,  so it seemed to me that having a good handle on what actually happened would allow me to react appropriately.  Do you see that?    


If you have any questions that you need help with …give us a call.

Thank you for reading,

– Steve


Dr. Steve Cohen

Principal, HR Solutions On Call