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Doctor’s Notes: When Should An Employer Ask For One?

Is it OK to ask employees for a doctor’s note if they are off work due to illness?  Do you have to wait a certain number of days before you can ask for a doctor’s note?

In British Columbia, the short answer to these questions is that, an employer may, at its discretion, ask for a doctor’s note to ascertain the reasons provided by the employee to support a request for leave and/or to determine an employee’s specific functional limitations. There is no specific number of days of absence that must pass before a doctor’s note may be requested.

However, the answer might change in circumstances where policies, collective agreement provisions or other contractual terms may restrict an employer’s right to require a doctor’s note.

While many provinces have formal sick-leave legislation requiring all employers to provide unpaid sick leave, employers in BC are not legally required to provide their employees with this benefit (without evidence of a disability that requires accommodation in the form of an approved leave of absence). Therefore, the question of sick leave becomes somewhat uncertain, especially for those employers not covered by specific language in a collective agreement. So what is the right thing to do when an employee calls in sick?

It is up to you, the employer, to determine an appropriate sick-leave policy for your organization and then work to develop, communicate and consistently apply that policy. Regardless of the size of your organization, it is recommended and considered beneficial to the business, your leadership team and all employees to have a clear, well-documented sick-leave policy in place. The policy should outline what is expected from an employee in relation to absence due to illness – both short- and long-term – and the associated requirement of a doctor’s note.

At the same time, you should ask yourself what type of culture you want to support and promote with your policy. Consider what makes sense for your organization and your employees and then build your policy from there. Be mindful and appreciative of the fact that infrequent employee absences are a normal part of life. It is the frequent or long-term absences that have the most impact on your organization and other employees; these should be your focus when developing your sick leave policy – including the process of requesting doctor’s notes.

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A policy that is too prescriptive can certainly be detrimental to employee morale. As opposed to having a policy that requires a sick note after every illness lasting a certain number of days, an alternative might be to state that the organization “reserves the right” to require notes when absenteeism is an issue. This gives you the ability to treat your employees like the adults you hired, while allowing the flexibility to be more regulating when dealing with employees who are calling in sick on a regular basis, or those who are away for extended periods of time. That said, while this type of policy might work well for some employers, there are others who will benefit from the consistency of a process that requires a doctor’s note for absences longer than three days. The goal is to determine what will work best for your organization and then move forward to create a policy that is consistently applied. 

In a unionized environment, it is common for the matter of sick-leave eligibility and the employer’s right to medical information to be specifically addressed in contractual terms. Where a collective agreement is in place, it is always prudent to carefully review its provisions to determine if, when and to what extent the employer can require disclosure of medical information.

One final note: When seeking medical information, do not be dissuaded by doctors who resist such requests or suggest you are wasting their time. Asking for verification of an employee’s illness, based on your organization’s sick-leave policy or the need to manage absenteeism, is generally a legitimate request. It is part of your responsibility as a manager or small business owner. Further, doctors in BC have a positive, professional duty to cooperate with employer requests for medical information. This duty, and some very helpful guidance to doctors on how to respond to employer requests for medical information, is set out in a Professional Standards and Guidelines document produced by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of BC, titled Medical Certificates and Other Third Party Reports.

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