Sunday, February 21, 2016

Should employees be allowed to work from home during blizzards?

Massachusetts had a snowstorm a few weeks back -- an occurrence that is likely to repeat itself regularly over the next several weeks. A reader from Massachusetts asks if it is right for an employer to make employees "take unnecessary risks" by driving to work after the governor asked residents to stay off the roads.

The reader works for a health care organization where employees who interact with patients must be in the office to be able to do their jobs. But the reader doesn't interact with any patients and can easily log on to her company's server so she can do her job from home.

But when she emailed her boss to let him know she'd be working from home to avoid being on the roads during the snowstorm, he told her that that would be unfair to the employees who had to show up to work on site. She would have to take a vacation day if she didn't come in.

The reader has colleagues with whom she works who regularly have received dispensation to work from home. "We communicate easily and as needed," she writes.

Other colleagues who have approached the human resources department with similar requests to work from home during extreme weather conditions in the past have had no luck.

"It just boggles my mind that in 2016, I'm working for a company, with a boss, who doesn't allow us to work at home during extreme weather conditions," she writes. "They'd rather we risk our lives or take a day off."

There are a few questions at play here. One is whether it's OK for a boss to insist on particular employees physically showing up to work even when the weather is miserable and they don't need to be on site to get their work done. Unless the reader had an agreement with her boss that she could occasionally work from home, particularly on snowy days, then the boss is within his rights to insist that she show up physically to work.

But another question is whether it makes sense for the boss to be rigid about this requirement, particularly if the state's governor has asked "non-essential" employees to stay off the roads if possible. In such situations, it's not unusual for companies to allow nonessential employees to stay home while others go to work.

That it wouldn't be "fair" to the essential employees if the nonessential employees worked from home seems a red herring. What the boss really is saying, and has every right to, is that he wants everyone to show up to work regardless of the weather. If they don't, then he doesn't want to credit them for a work day.

The right thing would have been for the employee to get clear on her ability to work from home when she accepted the job. Is it wise for the boss to insist on employees who don't need to be on the roads when more drivers could make road conditions more hazardous, especially when those employees could still put in a full day's work from home? No, but he has the right to do so. There are times when bosses get to where they are without wisdom playing into how they got there. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 



Anonymous said...

The subject's boss is a sorehead! I would think someone at this worker's level would have been praiseworthy for trying to complete assignments at home. And, the boss's comments are unworthy of comment, "unfair to other workers" is so weak as to be silly! I'm retired and have been for years, I sincerely doubt I could work in today's work atmosphere, if this boss is any example!

Charlie Seng

Anonymous said...

This is a tough one. Many office jobs have portions which can be done remotely.
Two questions "how much of the work percentage wise can be done remotely" and "how efficient, dedicated, and effective is this employee at home" both come to mind.
The supervisor needs to make these judgments ahead of time if possible along with sickness, family issues, car problems, and the whole array of possibilities that happen over time.
Plus fairness questions arise also.
Ideally the entire company established a policy and clearly spells it out for all.
Alan Owseichik
Greenfield, Ma.