Monday, April 5, 2021

Stop Asking Why Employees are Out Sick

Actions to take: Stop asking why employees are out sick. Instead, create the kind of working environment where employees would never consider using their leave unethically.

In certain work environments, or during certain times of the year, a manager might suspect that their employees aren't being entirely truthful when they call out sick from work. Some managers take it personally, some are frustrated to be left short handed, some just don't like the feeling that someone is pulling one over on them. It gets tempting to poke around a little when an employee calls in sick. Maybe you set up a policy that the employee must speak directly to you, and you ask a few questions after their health. Maybe, if you're really suspicious, you check the employee's social media accounts.

Knock it off. I understand the impulse in certain situations, but bosses who do this are not considering how badly it reflects on their management and character. There are huge negatives to engaging in this behavior.

  • It is infantilizing: One adult questioning another adult's decision to take a sick day is offensive. The subtext is "I, your boss, know better than you, the person experiencing the issue, whether that issue is worthy of taking a day off work." No one would want their boss doing it to them, so don't do it to your people.
  • It is unhelpful: Let's say you've got an absenteeism issue, and employees are lying about being ill. Becoming a detective is the least efficient way to solve this problem. You can't prove they are well. Even if they are seen out at a movie, or shopping, or whatever on their sick day, that is not proof that they are well enough to work. Plenty of illnesses cause an inability to do critical thinking or to stand for 8 hours, while they still allow us to do relatively easy tasks such as sitting in a movie theater or getting groceries. You have failed to prove anything and have succeeded in creating a mistrustful work environment. 
  • It may be illegal: No federal law prevents an employer from asking why an employee is out sick. However, the law does prevent discrimination based on a disability status. Therefore, if a boss does not typically ask why someone is out sick when they only do it once or twice a year, but does start interrogating their employee who is chronically out sick, they may be running afoul of the law. If that employee has a disability that contributes to their leave-taking, then the boss is treating someone with a disability differently than someone without. That is the very definition of discrimination based on disability status.

When you create a positive, productive work environment, this problem solves itself. On a good team, employees feel comfortable calling out, knowing that the work will get covered. They also have respect for their coworkers and only call out when it is genuinely necessary. That is how you conquer absenteeism issues, not by playing twenty questions every time one of your employees is ill.

Average bosses have issues with absenteeism because people don't like working for them. They try to treat the symptom rather than the disease by interrogating employees who call out sick. Better bosses create environments where people trust one another to do good work and only call out when necessary. They don't feel the need to monitor how an employee uses the sick leave they have earned. 


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