Managers: Are You Spying On Your Employees?

Last Updated Jan 10, 2011 10:44 AM EST

Have you ever called in sick when you were perfectly healthy? Of course not. You would never do that. You love going to work and would never lie. It's those darn employees of yours who are claiming illness while mountain climbing.

Companies, according to Bloomberg Business Week, are hiring private detectives to track down people who are lying about why they aren't at work. Good, let's get those weasly employees back on task, right?

Which brings me to a question: What kind of organization are you running that people feel the only way to get a day off is to lie about it?

I know, I know, your company is fabulous and you're a fabulous boss and you have the misfortune of being stuck with rotten employees. (We won't discuss that perhaps, if you keep getting rotten employees, you aren't that great at conducting interviews. Or, you're underpaying so you can't get quality people. That's a topic for a different day.)

A lot of people will suggest that the way around this "faked" sick time thing is to just have Paid Time Off (PTO) as one big lump. You get X number of days off. If you're sick, the kid is sick, you're on vacation, or hungover, it's all the same. Once you hit your maximum, you have to be at work every day, no matter what.

That is the easy way to do it. (I've also seen it done with PTO, but you have a limited number of those days that can be used without notice.)

The harder way to do it is to create a workplace environment where people won't feel that "calling in sick" is the only way to get the time off they need. Sometimes you end up with a bad apple, but trust me that will show up in places other than excessive sick days. And it's okay to have a sick day policy. Honest.

But, what's more likely, is that your good employees will be annoyed that you're following up on them. In a comment about sick day spying, over at SodaHead, dixienc writes:

An example.....I had strep throat...called in sick. Needed to eat something but knew I needed soup because swallowing anything else was out of the question. No soup in the house...no tylenol in the house for the fever I had. I was seen at the grocery store by another employee who couldn't wait to go running to the boss to "tell on me" like some petulant child. Luckily I HAD gone to the doctor as at the time I had a tendency to also get Scarlett Fever when I had strep throat so I had the doctor call my boss after I got the phone call chewing me out and telling me I was possibly going to lose my job for lying. Needless to say I turned in my notice when I was able to go back to work. I don't NEED to work for anyone who is that mistrusting and low down.
This manager, by listening to his eager spy, lost an employee. Presumably a good one, although I can't tell from here. Running into the "sick" employee at the amusement park is far different from running into the person at the grocery store. Heck, pharmacies are often located within or next door to grocery stores. If you hear that your "sick" employee was out shopping, feel free to follow up--when the person returns to work. Like this:

Manager: How are you feeling?

Employee: Better, although my sinuses are still killing me.

Manager: That stinks. I hate sinus infections. I had one last winter [blah, blah, blah], and oh, by the way, Jim said he saw you on Tuesday at the grocery store.

Employee: He did? He didn't say anything, which was just as well, as who would want to get near me with my germs. Leave it to me to get sick and have nothing to eat but celery and moldy cheese.

See, not accusatory. If the employee is faking it, the reaction will be different. Denial, usually. But, even so, it's the grocery store. (And please, grocery store workers, we're not trying to make you sick but you keep the food, and we need some.)

So, before you go out and hire some private detectives, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do I make it difficult for employees to take vacation days? Do you place numerous restrictions, schedule people when they've asked for days off, or just say no more often than not?
  2. Does the company have a reasonable time off policy? Is your vacation/personal day/sick day policy in line with your competitors?
  3. Do you interrogate people who call in sick? You may think this prevents fraud, but if people feel they have to argue, then they also feel like they've "won" a sick day.
  4. Are your employees struggling under a crushing workload? Too much work makes people feel like they've "earned" extra time off.
  5. Do you have reason to believe the employee is dishonest in other areas? It's not likely that an honest, trustworthy sort of person will pick this one area to lie about. There are undoubtedly other signs.
  6. Is the employee's work suffering? Most responsible people will bend over backwards to get their work done when they return to work. Heck, a lot of employees end up "working from home" when they are taking a "sick day." If the employee is still performing at a high level, who cares if she takes a day off?
Now, this is not to say that employees don't lie. They lie like rugs sometimes. They come up with amazing stories. Heck, you can even buy fake doctor's notes. These employees should be fired. But, before you hire that private detective you need to be pretty darn sure the person is lying in a big way. Otherwise, you run the risk of driving out your good employees.

Photo by TheGiantVermin, Flickr cc 2.0