Sunday, February 12, 2012

Taking a Sick Day

I’ve spoken before of my distaste for American corporate culture, and I’ve no doubt I will again.  Corporations have many unfortunate practices, the vast majority of which are just very creative ways to shoot themselves in the foot.  It always amuses me to hear free-market zealots explain how corporations always act in their own self interest ... I could spend hours telling you stories of companies doing stupid things that cost them vast quantities of money, just from my personal experience.  Sometimes this happens because, while an idealized corporate entity might always do what’s best for itself, a corporation in the real world is run by people, and people do silly things.  But often it just happens because of tradition, because of momentum, because it’s “common knowledge” that this is the way things are done and nobody bothers to question it or double check to see if it’s working or not.

Let’s talk about one such policy and why it’s dumb.  This particular one is close to my heart, because it played a very important role in my life (although that’s a story for another blog post).  I’m not sure what book on corporate management is hustling this hoax, but it must be a common one since I keep running into it.  Let’s say your company has no problem with you working from home under normal circumstances.  But what happens if you wake up feeling a little under the weather and decide it makes better sense to you to stay home and get some stuff done rather than go to work and spew your germs around?

Your manager has a fit, that’s what.

For some reason, most corporate middle managers seem to think that you must take PTO when you’re sick, even though they have no problem with you working from home at any other time.  I’ve yet to have anyone explain this to me in a way that actually makes any sense.  Generally it’s something about how you need to get your rest and so you should take the PTO.

Let’s examine all the reasons why that is utterly moronic.

In the first place, we corporate workers don’t want to work from home if we’re really sick.  If you wake up with a really bad flu or somesuch, you want to lay in bed and moan all day, in those rare intervals when you’re actually conscious.  But of course that’s not every day when you’re sick.  In fact, that isn’t even the majority of days when you’re sick.  Most days when you’re sick you don’t feel well enough to suffer through that vicious commute, you don’t want to stray too far from your medicine and your familiar bathroom facilities, and you figure it’s safer to be at home just in case you suddenly get worse, but, all in all, you’re still plenty alert enough to do most corporate work, which (let’s face it) doesn’t require a whole lot of brainpower anyway.  What am I gonna do at home all day?  Watch daytime TV?  Bleaaaghh.  I could be reading a nice book, perhaps, or playing mindless video games ... or I could be getting stuff accomplished for your company.  Which one really makes the most sense, from the point of view of the always self-interested corporation?

This, of course, exposes the real reason that corporate managers don’t want you working from home while you’re sick.  It’s because they think you’re going to do a half-assed job.  Basically, they’re telling you that you can’t be trusted to know when you’re alert enough to do a good job.  This is stupid for a lot of reasons.  First of all, if you really can’t trust the person, you should just fire them.  But obviously that’s not true: you trust them enough to let them work from home in the first place.  So now you’re saying that maybe they can do okay when they’re out of your sight sometimes, but they’re not really bright enough to know when they’re too sick to work.  And the problem with treating your employees like children is that it causes them to act like children.  If you deal with people with a lack of respect, giving them the message that they’re not mature enough, they will inevitably start doing petty things to live up to your expectations.  Enforce ridiculous rules about office supplies and they’ll start stealing paper clips; institute draconian time-off policies and they’ll start calling in sick to go out drinking with their friends; treat them like you expect they can’t keep track of their own time and they’ll start miscounting hours and being more “flexible” about what constitutes work time.  If you want people to act like adults, treat them like adults.  This works for your children, too, in case you didn’t know that already.  (And, if you did, why did you think it wouldn’t work for your grown-up employees?)

But perhaps the biggest problem with this silly policy is the dilemma it puts the employee in.  ‘Cause here’s my thinking on the matter:  If you tell me that I can’t work from home if I’m sick, I have two choices.  One, I could take the PTO and stay home and not work.  Or I could say, screw it, and just come in anyway.  I mean, I may not want to deal with the commute, and it might be more convenient for me to be near my own toilet, but when the alternative is to take PTO (which, due to other silly corporate policies, is a very precious resource), I might decide to forego the convenience and just bring my germ-laden ass in to the office.  After all, I’m not that sick (if I were, the question wouldn’t have come up at all).  And it’s no skin off my nose if I get a bunch of your other employees sick and they have to take PTO and all their work starts falling behind.  No, the only pocketbook that impacts is the company’s.

So look at what this policy is costing you.  It costs you forward progress on potentially important projects.  It costs you morale as employees are insulted by your lack of trust.  And it costs you countless lost work hours as you actively encourage your workers to spread their germs throughout the office and create a domino effect.  And what do you have to put on the other side of that corporate balance sheet?  The possibility that you saved a half-day’s time due to someone not doing a full day’s work?  Are you really coming out ahead?

What about the possibility that your silly policy inspires someone to just quit and go find another job?  You may say to yourself that the chances are good that their next corporation will have the same policy, so they won’t quit over something like that, but a) you don’t know that for sure, and b) people often aren’t that rational.  Don’t tell yourself it can’t happen.  I’m living proof that it can.

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