Doctor’s notes give employers the chills (Toughest HR Question)

Strict employer policies around medical notes may perpetuate a culture of distrust
By Yaseen Hemeda
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/24/2014

Question: Should employees be required to submit a doctor’s note when taking allotted sick days?

Answer: Many employers require employees to present a doctor’s note when taking sick days. Employers often require a doctor’s note as proof that employees are not abusing sick day policies.

But with flu season affecting many employees across the country, Scott Wooder, president of the Ontario Medical Association, recently spoke out about this issue. He advised employers to stop requiring doctor’s notes from employees with flu-like symptoms, because their visits to the doctor’s office are not only unnecessary but may in fact put others at risk by spreading germs.

In his exclusive commentary in the Feb. 24 issue of Canadian HR Reporter, Wooder raised an important issue HR professionals need to consider when implementing policies around doctor’s notes.

Although it is true that some policies around doctor’s notes are contributing to a drag on our health-care system, employers should be more concerned about implementing policies that perpetuate a culture of distrust in the workplace by policing sick days.

HR professionals who insist on implementing policies that demand doctor’s notes from employees who use their allotted sick days are not promoting a workplace culture based on trust.

Some employers are so distrustful of their own staff, they use surveillance tactics to monitor social media posts and even drive past an employee’s home to see if she is really sick.

Thirty per cent of employers indicated they have checked up on employees who called in sick to make sure they weren’t lying, according to a 2013 CareerBuilder survey of 2,100 HR professionals in the United States. Of those, 19 per cent checked the employee’s social media activity and 15 per cent went as far as driving past the employee’s house.

This type of behaviour cannot possibly benefit employer-employee relations.

When employee actions are highly monitored, HR risks alienating the top performers who do behave ethically. Treating these employees as untrustworthy will likely create resentment among the top performers who will not only feel unappreciated but will begin to distrust their own employer as well.

Unfortunately, employer policies are sometimes too generous and allow employees to carry over unused sick days into the following years. Perhaps a “use it or lose it” policy would be more effective in curbing chronic absenteeism where employees accumulate too many paid sick days and then want to use them all at once.

Another issue? There’s no denying that absenteeism can be problematic because there are some employees who do not behave ethically and call in sick when they are healthy.

The CareerBuilder survey showed that 32 per cent of U.S. workers called in sick when healthy. However, 30 per cent of employees who were actually sick did show up for work.

Therefore, we cannot focus solely on the issue of absenteeism without considering the negative and often harmful effects of presenteeism in the workplace.

Workplace trust affects morale, productivity and profitability

To retain valuable employees, employers need to establish trust in the workplace, according to the 2010 Deloitte Ethics & Workplace Survey, which revealed that employers may not fully understand the implications their decisions have on workplace trust.

During the 2008 recession, one-third of U.S. workers planned on looking for a new job once the economy improved, found Deloitte. Out of this group of respondents, 48 per cent indicated that a loss of trust in their employer was a contributing factor.

In addition, 65 per cent of Fortune 1000 executives surveyed thought this loss of trust would contribute to voluntary turnover rates.

Although the study does not directly correlate sick day policies with the issue of trust, the evidence is clear that trust in the workplace plays a crucial role in employee perceptions of their employer.

Respondents also believe morale, productivity and profitability are most positively impacted when an employee trusts his employer, found Deloitte.

Better management, recruitment of ethical employees needed

HR needs to resist the temptation to implement heavy-handed policies as a means to control the bad behaviour of a few individual employees. There are other ways to manage employees who are frequently absent and not performing well.

It is important to develop the right strategies with respect to sick day policies. It isn’t effective to collectively group all employees in the same communication or create policies to manage the specific actions of the few employees who are the culprits of abusing sick days.

Rather than micro-managing all employees and creating a culture of distrust, managers will be more effective if they address issues directly with problem employees.

If a manager suspects an employee is misusing sick days, then a private conversation with that employee is needed. This conversation should not be accusatory but used more as a way to let the employee know it has been noticed she’s been off sick frequently and management is there to support her as much as possible.

Abuse of employer benefits speaks to the quality of the candidates being recruited. Perhaps greater attention should be focused on the recruitment and selection of high-performing, ethical employees who are less likely to abuse employer benefits and privileges.

Policies that empower employers to constantly monitor employee activities and behaviours reinforce a culture of distrust within organizations. Instead, employers should focus more effort and attention on recruiting not only top talent but employees who are ethical.

In any relationship, whether it’s a marriage, friendship or work, there must be a high degree of trust to make the relationship succeed.

Yaseen Hemeda is a product development and process co-ordinator at Carswell, a Thomson Reuters business, in Toronto. He can be reached at yaseen.hemeda@thomsonreuters.com or (416) 298-5012.

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