Sick of the Sickie?

The issue of the ‘sickie’ was on my radar last night as I watched with disappointment the ‘Chuck a Snowie’ advertising campaign.  For those of you not familiar with it, essentially the ad entails a guy calling his boss and pretending to be sick so he can go on a snow skiing trip with his friends.  He proudly announces ‘he fell for it’ and then with joyous applause from his friends they have a celebratory moment at the success of his dodgy behavior.  Apart from pondering why such an ad is considered a good idea, it also made me reflect on what employers can do to avoid members of their team dishonestly using sick (personal) leave.  Unquestionably the solution to the problem lies in the engagement of people; not only with their job but also the extent to which they feel personally connected with the organization they work for.

Before looking further at the solution, lets first consider more closely the ‘sickie’ itself.  In my observation there are a few different types:

  1. I have something better to do today so I’m going to lie and not go to work; and
  2. I give more than I get so I’m taking a day off whether my boss likes it or not
  3. I’m feeling demotivated and can’t be bothered working today

The first is an option elected by people who lack integrity; namely honesty and fairness.  There are likely to be other indications of a lack of integrity these people bring to their work.  Even a boss we have good reason to dislike doesn’t provide reasonable excuse for lowering ourselves to this standard of deceitful behavior.  We are paid a salary in return for a service we promise to provide our employer; accepting our pay while deliberately withholding the service for no legitimate reason is morally tantamount to stealing.  In short, the guy depicted in the advert is someone you should avoid having in your business.  Anyone who is proud of being fraudulent isn’t the type of person we can trust or expect to be a positive influence on the spirit or success of your team.

The second type of sickie is fueled by a sense of injustice or lack of equity in the relationship someone has with his or her employer.  While still not an acceptable reason to dishonestly take leave, it is clear what the boss can do to change this reality.  It’s important to remember that some people choose to be a victim and despite your best efforts, it will be difficult to shift this entitlement mentality.  For many people however, making sure they feel fairly compensated and recognized for the contribution they make is key.  In many cases it’s more important that people feel their efforts are acknowledged and appreciated, than ensuring there is a measured approach to balancing time taken with time given.

When the third type of sickie is in play, this is when people may convince themselves slight physical discomfort they feel is in fact an illness or injury that warrants a day in bed.  While I’m not advocating that people go to work when they are unwell, it is evident that some of us allow mental fragility to influence our decisions about going to work.  There are undoubtedly times when the best advise we can give ourselves is ‘suck it up’ and get on with it but we choose the less taxing option of watching day time television instead.    There is reasonable argument that if we feel an illness looming we are better off getting on top of it before it takes hold.  What I am referring to here however is laziness that inspires us to take the easy and yet dishonest path the ‘sickie’ offers.

Over the years I’ve observed many businesses attempt to put controls in place that they hope will at the very least act as a deterrent if not all together dissuade people from ‘chucking a sickie’.  For example some leaders believe requiring people to submit a medical certificate will inspire more honest use of sick leave.  While its possible there is some positive effect in this strategy, unfortunately it doesn’t appear to be all that hard to convince a doctor to give us a ‘leave pass’ from work.  True it may be somewhat of a hassle to fit in a visit to a doctor on the ski fields, it is unlikely to stop someone determined to skive off.

While even the most enthusiastic and passionate member of a team may feel disinclined to work on a given day, the choices they make are most likely to be influenced by the sense of commitment and loyalty they feel.   A desire to get their job done or achieve a goal, sense of loyalty to their team mates, respect for their boss are all more likely to safe guard against people choosing to take a sickie than any process or policy controls can hope to achieve.   The most important things leaders must do to minimize the impact of the sickie in their team and business are:

  • Inspire people to make positive behavioral choices
  • Build a healthy workplace culture that people enjoy being a part of
  • Ensure people are in a job they enjoy and want to succeed at – if not guide them to change direction and find a better option within or outside of your business
  • Provide flexible work practices so people can be honest about what they need to enable them to balance work and life demands
  • Earn trust and respect through honorable behavior
  • Work hard to avoid hiring people who lack integrity
  • Reward and recognize people who play nicely and work in ways consistent with the organisations values
  • Address poor behavior and attitude – appropriate conduct must be a none negotiable expectation
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