Corner Office: When Workers Get Sick

A star athlete pulls a hamstring and there's no question: He goes out on the disabled list, he gets the best treatment, and, unless the injury is exceptionally severe, he comes back. No one — coaches, fans, teammates or sports writers — questions any of it.

What a contrast to what happens when the average employee gets sick or injured. She begs for time off to get treatment. She gets demoted to lesser jobs. Behind closed doors managers wonder, "How do we get rid of her?" And to her face they make it clear that her illness better not get in the way of her job performance.

Why this ugly disparity? It's simple: Sports teams understand that players are their greatest assets; the focus is on getting the player back, because losing him is expensive and painful. Many employers don't understand that employees are their greatest assets, so they believe it's easier and cheaper to replace someone than to face lost productivity or take a hit on their medical insurance premiums.

Wrong on both counts.

Because of this mistaken thinking, the problems faced by sick and injured employees have become so prevalent that Congress has taken action to protect them. The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, gives about 70 percent of the work force basic protections when they — or their loved ones — face a serious medical problem.

But the law is so complex that many people, employers and employees alike, don't understand it. Therefore, it's often used incorrectly or not at all. Almost a third of the work force isn't covered by the FMLA. And there are many aspects of managing an ill or injured employee that aren't addressed by the law.

Employees will get sick and injured, so this isn't an issue to ignore. Understanding the basics of the FMLA helps (and, if you're in a company with 50 or more employees, it's a necessity), but it isn't enough.

Go beyond the FMLA and imagine that all your employees are star players and the Super Bowl is approaching. Think about how you can help them get well — and come back.

Take Action

Encourage employees to stay healthy.

There's no magic wand to keep employees from getting sick. But encouraging healthful behavior can significantly reduce the risk. If you work for a large company that has a wellness program, encourage employees to use it. If you don't have that resource, think about other things you can do:

Brown-bag lunch programs or training on nutrition, exercise, CPR, first aid, prenatal care, HIV, and even defensive driving

Smoking cessation programs

Partial or total reimbursement of gym memberships

Encouraging before- or after-work walking programs

These efforts needn't be expensive. Classes are available from many nonprofit organizations that charge nominal fees. And even training by professionals is less expensive than paying a claim after something happens.

Don't encourage people to work when they're sick.

Do you see every cough, sniffle and wrenched back as a personal affront or a sign of weakness? Do you make employees feel guilty for taking time off? If so, you prolong symptoms, impair productivity, and spread germs throughout the office. You also send a signal that employees are only cogs in the machine, not people.

Keeping top people is easier if you let them take care of themselves. If your company has a sick or personal leave policy, encourage employees to use it. If your firm doesn't have a policy, advocate for one. If people come to work a hacking, sneezing mess, encourage them to go home, then deploy other resources to make sure the work gets done. And if you're sick, do everyone a favor — model the right behavior and stay home.

Keep medical information confidential.

The nature of an employee's illness isn't anyone's business — not even yours. There are only two things you need to know: That an employee is too ill to come to work, and that she's well enough to return. You don't need to know why. And you don't want to know.

If you have medical information about an employee, you run the risk of a discrimination charge if you take any action the employee feels is negative — even if you know your action in unrelated. And you carry the burden of protecting the employee's privacy. If you don't know, you can't tell.

Many companies have a policy requiring a doctor's note to return after an absence of a specified period (more than two days, for example). The policy is reasonable, but advise employees that the doctor needn't put a diagnosis on the note. Any medical information about employees should be kept in a confidential file separate from their personnel file.

Respect employees' wishes.

Employees may choose to share medical information with you. (Studies have shown that when people are diagnosed with a serious illness, someone at work is often the first person they choose to tell.) If that happens:

Ask why the employee is telling you. (Does he simply need someone to listen? Is she requesting an FMLA leave? Is he offering an explanation for what he may feel is diminished performance?)

Ask if she has told anyone else at work and, if so, who.

Find out what he would like you to say, if anything.

Some employees may want to keep the diagnosis private; others may want to share it with co-workers; still others may want co-workers to know but want you to tell them. If the employee asks for privacy, do not talk to others. If she asks you to share the news, ask her to make the request in writing and keep a copy in her medical file.

Be sure employees understand their benefits.

Employees often don't think about their benefits until they are ill and need them. But they don't always think clearly under stress. If you have an HR department, set up an appointment for the employee to meet with someone who can explain his coverage. If you don't have an HR function, contact the insurance carrier and ask for someone who can help the employee understand the plan. Employees need to understand their coverage, their rights and their responsibilities.

Understand the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Some illnesses and injuries are serious enough that employees become temporarily or permanently disabled. If that happens, they may be protected by the ADA and entitled to reasonable accommodation.

Understand the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Depending on the severity of an illness or injury, employees may need time off to recover. If you're in an organization with 50 or more employees, your company is subject to the FMLA.

If you have fewer than 50 employees, you may still choose to follow FMLA guidelines. Doing so is good for morale and retention (and may be required by a state law). Just be consistent; don't pick and choose who can take leave on any basis other than a legitimate business reason.

Don't discriminate based on pregnancy.

Until fairly recently, it was common for companies to refuse to hire pregnant women, to fire women during their pregnancies, or to refuse to allow a woman to return to work after giving birth. All of those practices are illegal. A woman's pregnancy tells you nothing about her ability to do the job, so don't consider it in any hiring, promotion, work assignment or termination decisions. Beyond that:

View a disability caused by pregnancy or a related condition just as you would any temporary, physical disability. (In California, leaves may have to be more generous than those provided for other temporary disabilities.) Don't attempt to practice medicine; rely on actual medical observation and opinion.

Recognize that employees aren't the only ones who get sick or injured.

Employees may face a crisis at home if a spouse, child, parent or partner is ill or injured. They may even need time off to be a caregiver. The FMLA provides for employees to take leave as a caregiver for a spouse, parent or child in certain situations. Some companies also give leave to employees who must care for a domestic partner.

Stay Out of Jail

Don't make decisions about hiring, promotion, work assignments, termination or other work activities based on an employee's actual or perceived illness, injury or other medical condition.

Don't permit jokes, remarks, comments or inappropriate statements relating to any employee's illness, injury, pregnancy, or related conditions.

Don't decide yourself when an employee's condition merits a leave. Rely on a doctor's opinion.

Bob Rosner is the co-author of The Boss's Survival Guide (McGraw-Hill, 2001), along with Allan Halcrow, former editor of Workforce Magazine and Alan Levins, senior partner of San Francisco-based employer law firm Littler Mendelson. Rosner is also founder of the award-winning workingwounded.com. He can be reached via fax at (206) 780-4353, and via e-mail at: bob@workingwounded.com.