Sunday, May 31, 2009


"My company wants to discourage the use of sick days for financial and staffing reasons," a regular reader from Huntington Beach, Calif., writes.

At a time when many companies are exploring all options to trim costs, it's not surprising that some are looking at employee benefits for potential savings. As with many well-intentioned efforts, however, this one may have unintended consequences.

Her company has reduced the number of hours each employee is allotted for sickness each year, she reports. Employees are not permitted to accrue sick time and carry over hours into the following year.

Furthermore, to encourage employees not to use even the sick days they have, the company rewards them with a paid day off for every six months in which they have perfect work attendance.

"So now," my reader writes, "colleagues come in sick and spread their sickness to others."

My reader sees the new sick-day policy as shortsighted, in part because it pits co-workers against one another.

"An individual may well want an extra day off, rather than be home ill, but the rest of us don't deserve to risk exposure and sickness just for that person's pleasure," she writes. "Isn't this company policy unethical?"

It's natural for companies to reward employees for a desired behavior. Some companies have taken to rewarding employees who participate in wellness programs, for example. So offering employees an incentive to maintain perfect work attendance may be well intentioned, if company management sees it as an incentive for workers to take care of themselves better.

Where this policy goes awry, however, is that it also serves as an incentive for workers to retain their eligibility for the extra day by coming in even when sick. Workers who do so expose their co-workers to germs and risk spreading the illness within the company, which is obviously not something that management should want to encourage.

So the policy is flawed. But is it unethical?

It might be, but I believe that it isn't.

The question is one of intention: If management deliberately set out to entice sick workers to come in anyway, it's not only unethical but also counterproductive. An office can be crippled by an epidemic set off by one ailing worker showing up when he or she ought to have stayed home.

I don't believe, however, that this is the intention of the company's incentive program.

The elephant in the room here is that the company likely believes -- and rightly so, to judge by past surveys of my column's readers -- that workers are using sick days for reasons other than sickness. Management isn't trying to get sick people to come into work, but rather trying to get people who aren't sick not to call in sick.

That's a legitimate goal for the company to pursue, and thus the policy is not unethical, whether or not it has unintended consequences.

Part of the ethical responsibility here lies on the employees themselves. They should know that showing up to work while infected with a communicable illness is virtually never appropriate. Many of us are guilty of having done this very thing, of course, without thinking through how our choices might affect our co-workers. We should take time to rethink such behavior.

Nonetheless, if the company's new policy is actually causing employees who should be home sick to show up at the office instead, the company's managers do have an ethical responsibility not to ignore the situation.

The right thing for them to do is to reassess the program to see if this problem exists and, if so, how it can be addressed.

One solution might be to eliminate the six-months reward for individuals and instead reward all employees with an extra day if overall sick days are down at the end of the designated period. A solution that doesn't pit one employee's interests against another's is inherently better than one that does, because a team spirit is by definition better for the company's interests.

It's obviously possible for a program that is entirely ethical and conceived with the best of intentions to actually make things worse. That shouldn't stop companies from looking for solutions to their problems, but they should be prepared to evaluate the results and make the necessary adjustments if things go wrong.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of an office "horror story" about a woman who was out of sick days, but had a child ill with the mumps. She was unable to afford a baby sitter to take care of her child, so she just brought the sick boy to work with her.

Problem is, he infected a male co-worker who had not had mumps as a child, just days before a long-planned vacation to Asia. Not only did the man miss his vacation, he ended up sterile.

No, it was not ethical for this woman to bring her sick child to work, but as she saw it, she had no other options as she had no paid time off available and could not afford to take unpaid time away from work any more than she could afford to pay someone to come in and stay with her child at home.

This is really the place where management needs to step up to the mat and start coming up with solutions (tele-commuting, flex time, etc.).

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