You’re Sick? Really?

I was sick the other week. Not contagious, nothing that required a trip to the doctor – just your average run of the mill “feels like the onslaught of the flu.” Luckily, I was able to stay home, bundled in blankets on the couch, drinking warm beverages, and just resting so that I could get up and at it by the next day.

I was thankful I had that option because I’ve worked for organizations that didn’t provide paid sick leave for their employees.

Oh sure, we had some paid vacation (1 week after a year), 6 paid holidays, plus a couple of “paid personal days,” but no paid sick leave or general paid time off (PTO). If non-exempt employees were ill and wanted to be paid, they had to use vacation time. We also utilized a point system for attendance – if an employee was taken ill suddenly, in an accident and in the hospital for a non-FMLA qualifying event, or woke up with a fever, not only did that employee have to either use vacation time or take the time unpaid, they also received a POINT for the absence as it was unscheduled.

Based upon my position, I had no real input into these policies. I was not an HR influencer, partner or change-agent; I was in a role where I upheld, enforced and trained employees and managers on these policies. It was part of our cultural DNA and organizational expectations.

Personally, it bothered me. I was the one who spoke with our employees who were unable to take time off for their own illness, let alone take time off to be with a sick child. I was the person who answered questions from mothers and fathers who had to choose between leaving a sick child home alone or risk getting a point on their attendance record.

Yes, the trains need to run on time, the donuts need to be made, and the teacups need to be packed for shipment. There are some jobs that require strict clock-in/clock-out times or require that the 2nd shift worker be in place before the 1st shift worker can go home. And I fervently believe that it is employers, not the government, who need to be allowed to determine what works best for their work environment, organization and industry when it comes to crafting paid leave policies and flexible work arrangements.

But sometimes what gets lost in all the talk about workplace flexibility, is the realization that there are some widely differing views of what that means.

I may define work-life balance as having the option for telecommuting or job-sharing or staggered work hours. Someone else may simply wish to have the opportunity to take some time off, without penalty, to tend to a sick child or recoup from a personal illness.

I’m a SHRM member and agree with SHRM’s support of H.R. 4855, the Work/Life Balance Award Act. While I’m not generally a fan of additional legislation, the focus of SHRM’s support for this Award (within the DOL) is to encourage organizations to think about work-life integration and to be innovative and flexible in their benefits and policies as appropriate for their specific environment.

When we lament our lack of being able to work at the local coffee shop, or take extended lunch hours to run errands because we will still “get the work done so what’s the big deal?”, I urge us to think about the worker who leaves her 12-year old with a 102 fever bundled up on the couch so she can get to work and not punch in 1-minute past her clock-in time. Doesn’t she want some flexibility too?

I view this as an opportunity for us in HR for this is what we are all about, keeping in mind what works for OUR specific organization and OUR specific workforce, while remembering the humans (and those they love) who are part of our decisions.

Our challenge is to remember that all flexible work options are not created equal. Are you up to the challenge?

Photo credit iStockPhoto

About the Author

Robin Schooling

With 25 years of HR Management experience, Robin Schooling, SPHR, has worked in a variety of industries. In 2013, after serving as VPHR with a Louisiana based organization, she left corporate HR to open up Silver Zebras, LLC, an HR Consulting firm. She blogs at HRSchoolhouse and you can follow her on twitter at @RobinSchooling where, on football weekends, you can read all her #whodat tweets.


HR Introvert

One of the things that we are all struggling with is that the truly diverse workforce has a diverse set of needs. One size fits all solutions work for some things, but not for others. Ask employers to show their funeral leave policies, and you will see some with lists of specific relationships that will allow you leave, and some with policies that say “take the time you need”. Then an employee will come in with the problem that there was a death during their vacation, and so they are entitled to those days. The policy gets another paragraph (or two….)

More and more we pay people not as cogs in the wheel, but to make decisions, no matter how minor. One of the most important decision an employee needs to make is what they need to be at their best. If they are too sick to work, or risk infecting others, the paycheck should not be part of the decision process. I always opt for the policy or practice that pays people to act responsibly and in the best interests of the enterprise – and sometimes that means STAY HOME!

Jennifer Payne

It blows my mind that there are companies that are still utilizing “points” systems for attendance and imposing punishment for staying home to take care of yourself or family. I’ve been lucky to never have worked in one of these environments. Why not let supervisors manage on a case by case basis…if someone is clearly taking advantage then address it…don’t punish everyone. How productive is a sick employee anyway…or one who’s mind is on the sick child at home?

Kimberly Roden

Great post Robin! It doesn’t seem human not to be empathetic to this topic and the individual situations that we encounter like the one you mentioned. Personally, I have felt that horrible guilt of leaving a sick child home, even with my mother, because I had to be at work that day. As mothers, we want to be there when our children are sick, period.

I’ve worked for companies that were flexible and am thankful for that. At the same time, I’ve worked for companies who track every single minute of time and heaven forbid you mention the words, “comp time.”

In my experience, when the discussions start about workplace flexibility, there’s always those folks who will immediately link the word, “flexibility” to parents only…oh and since they don’t have kids, what is the company going to do for the non-parents? The discussion turns into a narrow-minded debate without a stitch of creative thinking on the potential overall benefits for both employees and the company. As a simple comparison, the employee who has a long commute — working from home even 1 day a week is enormously more productive than being in the car for 2 hours a day. In the companies I’ve been to that were not flexible, it’s been virtually impossible to get the conversations to move forward due to the frustration levels of people who won’t see beyond their own situation (what’s in it for me?) or just raise so many potential negatives to the point of surrendering the topic altogether.

As you said, business still needs to be done and it may not work for all companies, especially small and lean organizations. However, I would love to see more companies act on this, talk about it, get their creative ideas going and provide flexibility to employees. Regardless of an employee’s personal situation, they should still be able to add value to their company while not feeling any guilt about neglecting their personal world. It could really be a win-win for everyone.

Thanks for posting this, Robin!

Dwane Lay

Couldn’t be more true. There comes a point where we lose track of the needs of our customers as HR, and we forget how important those things are. Generally, people work to provide and care for their families. We, as organizations, should make them choose between the two.


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