Do I Owe My Coworkers An Explanation About Why I’m Taking Leave?

When you’re frequently out of the office, it can raise questions with coworkers. But is the reason for your absence none of their business?

Do I Owe My Coworkers An Explanation About Why I’m Taking Leave?
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Taking time off work to care for a sick relative can take a toll on both your personal and professional life, especially when coworkers start to feel resentful.


Career expert Alison Green (aka Ask A Manager) helps one reader decide whether their coworkers deserve an explanation for a recent string of absences.

I am currently taking Family Medical Leave to care for a terminally ill parent. My absences are intermittent and all my paid time off (PTO) is used up every pay cycle. I cleared it with HR that I can come in early when I can in order to make up unpaid hours after my PTO is used, as we always need help and to lessen the impact of my time off to care for my parent.

I have a particular coworker who has been passively-aggressively whining around me about who she “should talk to about being able to work early to make up time for her scheduled appointments instead of having to use PTO” and why should she have to use PTO when other people don’t have to?

She has no clue what she is talking about, and I feel strongly that I don’t owe her any explanation regarding my leave.

Today, she did the same whining in front of everyone at a team meeting while staring directly at me! She even insinuated she will visit HR with her “concerns.” I’m not sure why she can’t mind her business, nor do I care about her opinion.

I am concerned, however, about the impact her complaining will have on other coworkers’ perception of me and fear that this will become a witch hunt. I do my work and have discussed my leave with only HR and my manager, as I want no accusations of trying to “get sympathy” from anyone. I have enough problems and no time for the drama. Is this woman owed an explanation?

No, she’s not owed an explanation at all.

However, you might be more likely to get the outcome you want by giving her and others some context, if you’re willing to.

To be clear, she is totally out of line. Her comments are obnoxious, and your time off is none of her business unless it’s impacting her, and if it is, she should be addressing that forthrightly, not making snide comments. And you’re under no obligation to share the details of your leave with your coworkers.

However, the reality is that if it looks to others like you suddenly have a really flexible schedule when they don’t, not everyone will think: “Oh, there’s probably a good reason for this and I should mind my own business.” Some people will wonder if you’re slacking on your hours or getting special treatment for an unfair reason. This isn’t right, but it’s often human nature. Of course, most people won’t be rude about it like your coworker is, but it’s true that people who notice may wonder, and it can go a lot more smoothly if you’re willing to say something to explain.

You don’t need to share personal details if you don’t want to; there’s range of things that you could say. For example, to the rest of your coworkers (not the obnoxious one, who I’ll get to in a minute), you could say one of these:

  • “I want to let you know that I’ve been working a different schedule than normal because of some family health issues. I’ve worked out an arrangement with Jane and HR, but wanted to give you a heads-up, too.”
  • “I’m taking intermittent FMLA leave so you may notice me working different or fewer hours than usual.”
  • “My mom is very sick and I’m using FMLA to take care of her. I wanted to give you a heads-up because it’s going to be impacting my schedule for a while.” (I know you said you don’t want to explain the details lest you be seen as chasing sympathy, but unless your coworkers are horrid people, it isn’t going to come across that way. But again, it’s your call and you can use one of the more vague options above if you prefer.)

To your obnoxious coworker who’s making the comments, I’d say this: “Lavinia, do you have concerns about my schedule? You’ve made several remarks about it and I’m not sure what you’re looking for from me. I’ve made specific arrangements to use FMLA leave with Jane and with HR.” Or, if you don’t even want to mention FMLA—although, again, I think it will benefit you to—you could say, “”Lavinia, I’ve arranged my schedule with Jane and HR. If you have concerns about your own schedule, I encourage you to talk to them.”

If it continues after that, I’d talk to your manager. Say something like, “Lavinia is regularly complaining about my FMLA leave. I don’t feel comfortable explaining the details to her, and I’ve asked her to stop, but it’s continuing and becoming a distraction.”

This article originally appeared on Ask A Manager and is reprinted with permission.

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