Adults Playing Hooky

Dec 30, 2004

By George Anderson

Recently, parents of a very bright 15-year-old high school student (the parties wish to remain anonymous) were faced with an ethical dilemma of sorts.

The teenager awoke one morning and told his parents that he wanted to take a day off from school. The child wasn’t sick but, as the parents were aware, he also hadn’t finished an assignment due that day.

Now, the child wasn’t at all pleased when his request was denied and, as would most modern American teenagers, he then proceeded to say all sorts of hurtful things while taking pains to point out what hypocrites his parents were. After all, they took off for “personal” or “mental health” days. Why couldn’t he?

Parent number one (the mother and the scarier of the two adults) reminded him that those days were only taken when she was caught up at work and knew that her absence for a day would not add too much pressure to her co-workers.

Parent number two (the father and a really nice guy) reminded his ungrateful brat of a son that, with the single exception of a death in the family, he hadn’t taken a day off, sick or otherwise, for more than three years. In fact, there were numerous instances when he was ill that he dragged himself out of bed and went to work anyway.

The child went to school and both parents went to work but the bigger question raised by the teenager was valid. Should people call in sick to work if they are not?

An article in today’s Christian Science Monitor addresses this very same issue. According to a Harris Interactive survey, one in five adults in the U.S. have called in sick to work when they weren’t.

Some say that the definition of a sick day needs to be expanded to allow workers to deal with family issues or just take a step back from work if they think they need it.

Keith Greene, a director at the Society for Human Resource Management said, “Companies create problems for themselves when they have a policy saying that sick leave is only for the employee.”

Mr. Greene advocates that employers combine what are currently called sick days and vacation days into “leave days” that employees can use at their discretion.

John Boatwright, a professor of business ethics at Loyola University in Chicago, said many employers already do this on an informal basis with workers but that there’s a downside to the approach.

“If an employee doesn’t show up for work and there’s no harm to the employer from that absence, it’s less serious,” he said. “But once there’s a wink and a nod about one policy, there’s a spillover effect to other policies … that can be very damaging to the organization.”

Moderator’s Comment: What is your take on the “sick
day” issue? How does it impact running a business?

Retailers have a particular problem staffing on weekends
with phoned-in absences. Having worked many early Sunday morning shifts to open
the store at a local Trader Joe’s, it was clear that the vast majority of people
calling in sick were in their early twenties or late teens. As one older crewmember
once remarked to us, “I guess hangovers count as being sick these days.”

George Anderson – Moderator

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