Parents are often told that a signed doctor's note is a free pass for their children in school, but that's not always the case in the workplace. You might expect employers to accept signed doctors' notes as proof of illness or injury and excuse resulting work absences, but many have their own policies for dealing with absences. It is not illegal for employers to refuse doctors' notes, unless workers qualify under the Family and Medical Leave Act. It never hurts to get a doctor's note, but it might not excuse you from missed work responsibilities.
Employers Carry the Big Guns
Whether to accept a doctor's note as an excuse for a work absence is usually at the employer's discretion. According to the Wisconsin law firm J.J. Keller and Associates, Inc., companies can legally impose disciplinary action for excessive absences even when employees have doctors' notes. An employer might choose to accept a doctor's note for infrequent illnesses or injuries, but repeated absences can lead to workload problems by putting extra pressure on co-workers to make up for sick or injured employees. There's no room for bluffing when it comes to work absences.
When an employee qualifies for medical leave under the FMLA, she must notify her employer of her status. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employees are not required to provide copies of medical records or disclose specific details about their injuries or illnesses. That information is private. However, employers do have the right to ask employees to provide medical certification that proves serious health problems exist. A signed and dated doctor's note, usually on the doctor's or medical facility's letterhead, and a general description of the conditions should suffice. The employer will likely contact the doctor or facility to confirm the information.
Don't Overlook the Obvious
Some injuries and illnesses prevent a worker from being able to perform her duties, and her employer can visibly see her impairments. In those cases, doctors' notes are only beneficial for administrative purposes. For example, if a telephone operator loses her voice from a bronchial infection, she can't perform her work responsibilities, and a doctor's note only serves to validate what the employer already knows. Or, if an employee breaks her arm, she might not be able to run her cash register or operate technical equipment. The employer must decide if it's worth keeping the employee on the payroll or if a temporary layoff or permanent termination are necessary. A doctor's note might not make a difference in the employer's decision-making process.
Termination Is a Touchy Subject
Most states have at-will employment policies that give employers the right to fire employees at any time for any reason, as long as discrimination isn't a factor in the firing. As a result, employers can fire employees with or without doctors' notes. However, employers cannot fire employees just because they filed workers' compensation claims, as long as they can perform their work responsibilities. If the injury is legally documented to be a permanent disability, the employer must make reasonable adjustments to help the worker if she can still perform the major tasks, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
- J.J. Keller & Associates, Inc.: Employee Relations Essentials Manual: Requesting Doctor's Notes
- U.S. Department of Justice: Questions and Answers: The Americans With Disabilities Act And Hiring Police Officers
- U.S. Department of Labor: Frequently Asked Questions and Answers About the Revisions to the Family and Medical Leave Act
- IN.gov: Worker's Compensation Board of Indiana -- Who Is Eligible?
- Digital Vision./Digital Vision/Getty Images