Sunday, February 20, 2011

How sick is the new sick policy?

Most of us have had the odd occasion when we decided to go to work even though we felt slightly under the weather. Perhaps not with a full-blown case of the flu, but a nasty bout of hay fever or a dalliance with stomach upset that might not be enough to keep us from our appointed rounds.

But as irreplaceable as we might view ourselves, is it responsible to go to work when you are sick enough to spread whatever you have to co-workers?

A reader from Huntington Beach, Calif., believes her company may be unintentionally causing employees to come to work when it would be in their own interest and those of their colleagues to stay home and get healthy.

Her company recently changed its sick-leave policy because it wanted, she writes, to discourage the use of sick days for financial and staffing reasons. “They have reallocated the number of hours each employee is allotted for sickness each year and they do not allow accrual of sick hours.”

What’s worse, she argues, is that the company’s management is also incentivizing employees to not use their sick days by rewarding them with a day off for every six months they have perfect attendance. “So now colleagues come in sick and spread their sickness to others,” she writes.

Clearly, she believes this policy is not only shortsighted, but also pits coworkers against each other. “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.”

Is the company wrong to want to encourage its employees to take as few sick days as possible by rewarding them when they don’t?

There may be a variety of reasons why my reader’s company came up with its policy of rewarding employees when they take few sick days. Perhaps management believed that employees were misusing sick days to get time off when they weren’t actually ill. Short of requiring a sick note from a doctor, the company would have to take the employee’s word about their health status. Or perhaps, rather than allowing employees to accrue sick days from one year to the next that they could use for long stretches or be compensated for when they leave the company, it seemed a better idea to reward an extra personal day for every six months of perfect attendance.

If a company enacts a policy because it doesn’t trust its employees when they say they’re sick, then no change in sick-day policy will cure that lack of trust. If it’s a trust issue, a company would be wise to look deeper at the root of the problem.

But even if the company trusts its employees and enacted the new policy out of a desire to be more efficient, it still has the responsibility to make sure that the new setup doesn’t result in the unintended consequence of encouraging an office full of sick co-workers.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with changing a sick- or personal-day policy. But the right thing to do is to make sure that in your effort to make things better, you haven’t unintentionally made things far worse for everyone involved.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today’s Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to



William Jacobson said...

Jeffrey, this is a red herring - this is a question of policy and not of ethics. There is nothing inherently right or wrong in how a company alots sick and personal days. In fact, the company would be completely in the right if they eliminated them altogether. Perhaps your reader should count her blessings that she gets them at all.

As a policy matter, it makes sense that the company would seek to 'reward' those who are not using sick days with personal days. Sick days are more disruptive to their operation due to the lack of advance notice and awarding personal days in place of lost sick days still nets a cost savings. Those that complain most loudly about the policy change are likely to be the very employees abusing the policy that they change is designed to address.

William Jacobson
Cypress, CA

Jan said...

This is a common debatable issue.

But if we start with a concept that an "X" number of employees will be too sick to come to work "Y" days a year (including hospitalizations, communicable diseases, etc.), we set an allowable standard that does not penalize an employee, like 11-13 days a year, and we pay them "sick leave".

But, rewarding employees who do not take sick leave is misguided. Why not just assume that some employees are healthier than others?

By limiting the number of paid "sick leave days", a company protects itself from intentional and excessive "abuse" of the policy. Where companies fall short is in not having a policy/system that asks employees using excessive "sick leave" to provide a medical professionals validation of the illness. Most companies are reluctant to do this, and, interestingly, most honest employees are not reluctant to obtain a note from their medical provider attesting to the medical issue.

Bottom line, if employees know that the employer will ask them for a release to contact their medical provider if the company wants to validate what might appear to be excessive charges to sick leave, employees will be less prone to fabricate sick leave absences.

Jan Bohren
[ex-HR executive]

P.S. My experience (30+ years) has shown that employees who choose to fabricate sick leave as a reason for their absences have a more work-related issue that is driving them to be dishonest about their frequent absences (i.e., lousy working conditions, an oppressive boss, etc.

"Everyone is doing it" is no basis for doing it yourself

Years ago, after I had left my job as a magazine editor and took a significant cut in pay to become an assistant professor at a liberal ...