columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

I just took over job duties for a departing manager and inherited a new employee. He does a generally good job, although I have had some concerns about his work ethic (that's a different story entirely that I plan to address).

This employee is a huge sports fan, and his favorite team is in the playoffs. He had requested time off from his previous manager for a long weekend exactly at the time when this sport's big finalist playoff will happen. When he requested the time originally, and later mentioned this to me, he described the time off as because a family member is having surgery, and he needs to help this person, so he will be taking family sick leave (a separate PTO category, which is relevant later).

I understand that I don't need to know what my employees are doing with vacation time. But when he mentioned the request to care for the family member, I believed him and didn't think anything of it, until another employee mentioned that this first employee is actually planning to attend the playoff game that weekend. I am now suspicious that there is no surgery, given how he framed the time-off request to the former manager and me. 

Importantly, we pay out unused vacation when someone leaves, so there's an incentive NOT to use it and to allow it to accrue. He made a mistake on his time card last month, too, noting sick time for an obvious vacation day. I thought it was a mistake, but now I'm concerned that he did it on purpose, thinking that I wouldn't notice. Also, if he took vacation time for the sports event, he'd wipe out almost all of his accrued vacation balance.

Do you have any suggestions for whether I should try to find out if he's lying? How do I approach the conversation with him if I find out that he is lying? Should I be doing anything else to investigate?

I should also mention that we're short staffed, and another employee told me yesterday that he doesn't offer to help with tasks when he's not busy, and that she's a little overwhelmed. I've also been concerned about the amount of time he spends during the workday talking about sports and looking at sports websites. So it's a larger pattern of behavior that I need to deal with soon. But I also don't want to accuse him of lying if there really is a surgery! That would be horrible.

Green responds:

Well, he might really be traveling to take care of a sick relative and plans to see the playoff game while he's there, so it could be both.

Why not just ask him straight out, "Hey, did I get your leave type wrong for May? I wrote down that it's family sick leave, but someone mentioned you're going to the playoff game then."

But if that doesn't clear it up ... in general it's best to believe people about this kind of thing, unless you have really solid evidence that they're lying. That does mean it's possible that he could get a few days of family sick leave that he wasn't really entitled to, but that's better than the dynamic you'll create if people feel like you're cross-examining their honest claims for sick leave.

That doesn't mean that you should turn a blind eye to the things that are making you feel uneasy, though. When you're suspicious of something you can't quite prove, it can be useful to take a closer look at other aspects of that person's behavior -- because often when someone acts without integrity in one area, they're doing it in others, too. So, in this case, you might make a point of more closely watching how he reports leave on his time card (in case that mistake last month is part of a pattern) and generally pay more attention to him in areas where you might normally not give a lot of oversight. If you find nothing, then great! That could clear his name in your mind. But if you do find more troubling things, you'll have something more concrete to address.

I'd also pay more attention to how much time he's really spending talking about and reading about sports during the day, and address that if it's excessive, as well as talk to him about needing to do more to help your other employee when he's not busy. And it's OK to say, "I see you on sports websites a lot -- what's your workload like right now?" and "Let's have you take on X and Y to help out Jane while she's so busy."

In other words, there's a lot you can do around your concerns in general, without going on a detective hunt about this particular trip.

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