Dear Employers: Don’t Make Ridiculous Sick Time Policies

My youngest child is running a fever today. If I was still working full-time, my husband and I would be doing the “Sick Time Shuffle” — trying to figure out (a) which one of us has the most sick time available, and/or (b) which one of us might get more pushback for taking a day off.

Usually, I’d be the one taking the day, as I’ve typically been the one with more sick time and more flexibility with my work arrangements, but sometimes my husband would take one for the team and call in instead.

A few years ago my middle daughter had an ear infection coupled with Influenza B (in June, seven months after she’d gotten her flu shot — did you know they wear off after six months?) and both my husband and I were at a loss. Neither of us had any paid time off left, and both of us had been told by our respective bosses that our jobs were on the line if we took any more time off. Neither of us were able to work from home.

I ended up posting about my dilemma on Facebook, and a friend in the area took pity on me and agreed to watch my daughter so I didn’t have to call in. I felt terrible leaving my sick child with someone she’d never met, but I felt more terrible at the prospect of losing my job (because that could mean we’d lose our house, too).

I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me over the years, and I hear similar stories almost every day from members of the Catholic Working Mothers Facebook group. Some of our members work for employers that have truly terrible sick time policies, such as:

  1. Not offering any paid sick time at all, or offering very little.
  2. Establishing a point system for call-ins, and getting penalized once a certain number of points are accumulated.
  3. Withholding holiday pay if an employee calls in on the day before/after a holiday.
  4. Requiring a doctor’s note for any illness, mild or major.

(Note: I’m in the U.S., so I only have experience with sick leave policies in the U.S. Your mileage may vary.)

No Sick Time

This one is pretty self-explanatory. If you have employees, they will get sick occasionally. That’s simply a fact of life. By not offering sick time, employers are telling their employees that they have to choose between working while sick or not being able to pay their bills. If you own a business that employs other people, sick time is a cost of doing business. If you can’t afford to offer sick time, you can’t afford to run a business. Period.

Encouraging people to work while sick is only going to end up costing the business more money, because the illness will spread and result in mistakes and lost productivity.

Also? One day per year or some other ridiculous amount is not enough. The standard seems to be one day per month, but more is better (sometimes you get illnesses that can last a week or more, especially during a bad flu season).

Point System

When my husband worked in tech support, his employer was a very large, very successful company that had very generous sick time policies — unless you worked in the tech support department. The tech support employees were given “points” every time they called in sick. If you accumulated more than three points in a six-month period, you got a warning, and the consequences increased with every point accrued. I think six points in a six-month period warranted immediate firing.

This type of policy drives me NUTS because it treats people who are supposed to be adult professionals like recalcitrant children. It sends the message, “We don’t trust you to to be honest about your health and your time off, so we will penalize you if you fall short of our arbitrary standards of how often people really get sick.”

With policies like this, I always wonder: why are you hiring people that you don’t trust? If you can’t trust your employees not to lie about needing the day off, then the problem seems to be with your hiring practices, not your employees.

Yes, sometimes there is a bad apple who repeatedly betrays his/her employers’ trust and calls in sick when s/he isn’t really sick. But it makes no sense to punish the entire department or company because of the actions of one person. Address that person’s behavior and how it is affecting the workplace; don’t assume everyone else is going to act the same way. It’s a cop out to make policies meant to address one person’s bad behavior and impose them on an entire department or company, because it avoids treating the problem at its source.

Holiday Pay

This policy really grinds my gears. It’s related to the point system I discussed above in that it treats employees like they are naughty children who can’t be trusted to use their time off responsibly. Newsflash, employers: people get sick right before or sometimes on major holidays. You may think you’re simply discouraging people from using their sick time like vacation, but what you’re really doing is punishing people who have the bad luck to get sick (or whose kids get sick) before or after a holiday.

Again, if you’re having a problem with an employee (or multiple employees) repeatedly calling in sick before or after a holiday, you deal with the behavior problems of that specific employee instead of punishing your entire department or company for the actions of one.

Doctor’s Notes

There are times when it is perfectly appropriate to require a doctor’s note from an employee — when they are returning to work after a workplace accident, or going on disability leave, or requesting FMLA accommodations.

It is not appropriate or logical to request a doctor’s note for every instance of sick time use. Yes, this happens.

If an employee has a viral illness, a doctor’s visit is a waste of time and money for both parties. It also allows illnesses to spread by forcing a potentially contagious employee (one who may not feel well enough to drive) to travel to and from the doctor, possibly spreading illness in the doctor’s waiting room or elsewhere. It takes the doctor’s time away from patients who have treatable illnesses, and it costs the employee money in co-pays.

If you suspect your employee is lying about their illness in order to take the day off, requesting a doctor’s note is the worst way possible to address that problem. Instead, you focus on the employee’s absence or pattern of absences and how it affects their work and impacts deadlines — and you address it with the employee instead of punishing his or her co-workers.

Allow Telework

I can’t emphasize this enough — where feasible, please allow employees to telecommute in lieu of taking sick days. It will especially help employees with children. There have been so many days where my school-aged kids were sick and couldn’t go to school, but could entertain themselves on the couch with movies while I worked.

This can also benefit employees with pets or who are caregivers for elderly relatives. It’s really hard to burn all your sick time caring for sick kids, only to have none left when you catch the illness everyone else has gotten over.

Granted, there are many occupations where this isn’t feasible — retail work, or doctor’s offices, or similar. But for a lot of occupations, it is both feasible and possible, but employers are afraid that allowing such flexibility will cause people to abuse it.

But if you treat your employees like professional, capable adults and don’t punish the majority for the perceived actions of a few, and don’t make overarching and overreaching policies a replacement for actually managing problem employees, you’ll find it’ll benefit your workplace in the long run.

Have you ever encountered a ridiculous sick time policy? Share in the comments!

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