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Q&A: Is the law on my side if I discipline an employee caught sleeping on the job?

First off, it's not a good idea to automatically discipline a worker caught sleeping unless evidence exists that the nap was deliberate — such as a worker lying down under his desk with a pillow. Circadian rhythms, not irresponsibility, are to blame for many involuntary "sleep attacks" on the night shift.

But if you do observe what you consider a willful intent to sleep, the key, from a legal standpoint, is to be consistent. In your company rulebook, spell out clearly the penalties for sleeping while on duty, don't let one worker slide while punishing another for the same crime.

At one company, a worker who was fired after being caught sleeping on the job brought his case before an arbitrator, claiming his punishment was more severe than that given to others who'd been caught sleeping. Looking at the company's history, the arbitrator saw the worker was the first to be fired for sleeping on the job, and he ordered the discharge reduced to a 30-day unpaid suspension.

Another thing to consider is whether a worker has a sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea, that considerably increases sleepiness during waking hours. Such workers may need medical treatment for their condition.

Finally, if your company has strict rules and severe punishments against sleeping on the job, you might want to look into starting programs that manage napping, rather than banning it. For example, set up procedures and locations where workers can take a brief power nap. Studies have shown that even a 10-15 minute nap can increase alertness and productivity for several hours. By managing napping you can reduce disciplinary actions, and help improve safety and alertness on the job.

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