Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Making People Ill, Part 2: Management and Illness

As discussed in my previous blog post on being ill in the workplace, traditionally you have specific options to look at: set number of sick days, or a pool of days that you can use for your illness or vacation. Without directives from management or the company, employees can and will do what they want to make the most of these like coming to work with a fever and sneezing on everyone to avoid losing vacation time with the family.

In the previous post, I talked about what employees have to consider, and also about the rate at which normal humans actually get sick. Today we're going to talk a little about Mangement and the Company and illness (oh my).

As a manager, I don't want people coming to work contagious. That is different than coming to work sick. Basically, if someone is sick but has something that isn't contagious, I'll feel sorry for them, but if they feel they can at least do 60% of their normal work, I welcome them in. An excellent example here is a sinus infection; they are really, really hard to give to other people who are not intimately involved with a person. Knowing a sinus infection from the flu, pneumonia, etc., however, is hard to tell if you or they are not a medical professional. Typically, if someone is producing extra liquids--nosebleed, phlegm, other gross stuff--I'm going to ask them to make sure they aren't contagious.

A trip to the doctor or Urgent Care is preferred, but typically I'll take 24 hours without a fever. Note, many medical studies still argue today about when you're infectious: most agree that before you have full on symptoms you could be spreading the virus or bacteria, but there are different agreements about whether you're still shedding the bacteria/virus the entire time you're sniffling, coughing, etc. or just after the worst of the fever is over. As I'm not a doctor, and they can't even agree, I've come up wtih the 24 hours after a fever rule.

I've also got the one I just casually mentioned above, which is 60% effective to their normal quality work. When people are sick, they are not doing top notch work (typically). As long as they're at least at 60%, its ok with me if they want to work through it (and not infect me). For me, personally, this means I have to be able to drive to work; if I can't operate a motor vehicle due to illness (coughing too hard, head too fuzzy, balance off, etc.) then I don't come to work. It's a nice rule of thumb to discuss with employees. If you feel unsafe in heavy machinery, please don't come in and try to make coffee or code.

If they are sick, I like to do the magical "work from home" option, again, up to the 60% effective option. Sometimes, people cannot drive their cars because the car doesn't come with an in-car bathroom and their issues are related to that. Their brains are relatively clear. Maybe they can work from home. With folks who are full on shedding virus/bacteria--with a fever or being told by a doctor/nurse they're doing it--if they feel they can produce up to 60% of their productive work, I'm typically good with them working from home.

Note, however, not all COMPANIES are. I've worked in healthcare; often if you're ill, they want you to simple take a day off and not work from home. In some states, cities/zones, it might not be okay to work from home when you're not well enough to be in the office. And some companies just don't count work that isn't done under the company roof, either for auditing purposes or because of some esoteric rules about managers being able to walk around and see people click-click-clicking away. As a manager and an employee, you should check the company guidelines about working from home.

If there aren't any guidelines, and the employee feels confident in taking responsibility for any state/local/zone laws, then I'd recommend for reliable employees that you just let them work from home and see how it goes. If it goes well, make your own policy and keep it on the down low. If it doesn't work well, then you may need to cancel that policy for all employees to avoid the ones that don't 'work' for the "Work from home" policy from complaining to HR. Alternately, if you determine its not working and tell someone they no longer have the privilege, you can talk to HR about your overall work-from-home policy. Please remember, though, from my post on HR: HR is here for the company, not for you, and not for the employee. Plan accordingly.

The world of comp time is complicated and harrowing. You should review all materials at the office/company handbook to see if its mentioned. If not, and as long as the employee knows that it is completely between members of the team and you as a manager, and that comp time banked or otherwise could be lost at a moment's notice, I typically am of the opinion to go ahead. However, you need to make sure you're not violating any labor laws (ie: in banking that time you need to make sure you comply with the laws, or in making time up) and that you and the team are not actively being untruthful about overall hours worked. Any employee unhappy with this can and will blow the whistle to HR on the practice, and unless you have a policy already in place, you, as a manager, are risking reprimand or worse for allowing for comp time. So, if you choose this option, know that doing so has risks attached to it.

As the boss you also approve sick time/PTO. An option you have is to just not count sick time or PTO for good employees/people so long as they are not abusing the privilege. Even if they start abusing it, a firm discussion with them and notification of accomodations that can be made by HR should be had before you withdraw this privilege. I would use it sparingly, but it is always an available option to managers who are pretty sure that the star employee isn't actually pretending to cough from a fishing boat somewhere on a lake.

Finally, as the boss, you have to enforce policies at your company about time off. Maybe you don't have the leniency to use your own judgment because of law or company policy, or because someone with pneumonia whose been out a week is kind of noticeable. My natural tendency on the matter of sick time is to never question it; even, and especially, at emergency time or crunch time. People burn out. Mental health is a recognizeable illness, so if someone wants to bust a sick day to sit at home and play video games, I don't care--it's their benefit. I won't be happy if it leaves me in the lurch, but I'm not going to drop by to see if they're "really" ill. They and I (well, I most of the time) are adults.

Some employees will be more sick than others; if you can provide flex time for them (they are in the office core times, but can work from home or stay later or come earlier) to help accomodate, great. People with kids really need this for both their own illnesses and general kid stuff. I'm not sure who in the school randomly decides to create holidays where none were before, but, surprise, parents, SCRAMBLE, you have three days to find childcare because we're cancelling school on Friday. Happy Wednesday!

If an employee uses all their sick time, you should work with them and HR to find out what their options are when they get sick again. With luck, they won't, but if you read my last post, you'll grasp that people get sick a lot. This may mean they go "in hoc" with the company; it may mean they take days off without pay; it may mean that they use vacation days. But work something out with them before their next illness, when they're awake and alert and (hopefully) at their mental best, so things can be done as fairly as possible, and they don't have to worry about being sick and figuring out how to handle it with the company (or worse, worrying about being fired) at the same time.

When you have employees who have been sick or the threat of illness abounds in the office, I recommend frequent hand washing reminders and, if your company doesn't already provide it for free, picking up hand sanitizer and dropping it off like a little present for every employee. Science has proven that, statistically, people with cleaner hands get sick a lot less often, hence the imperative regarding hand washing in places like hospitals. Also, as illness makes the rounds, I recommend fewer in-person meetings in enclosed spaces; stand outside or use a conference call. Do normal things to prevent transmission, like suggest people cough/sneeze into the crook of their arm instead of into their hands, and, you know, covering their coughs in general.

I don't like to be sick anymore than anyone else, so this is less about being an excellent manager (although you do get that as a nice side benefit) and more about staying healthy yourself. A healthy manager has a much better chance of being a good manager.

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