Calling in Sick? 'I Have the Flu' Is No Match for Some Excuses

By Kathy Gurchiek October 26, 2011

Whether it’s the worker who hurt his back chasing a beaver or the employee with a headache from attending too many garage sales, HR professionals and hiring managers across the U.S. have heard amazing reasons that employees give for taking sick days.

Like the chef who called in sick because he was allergic to food.

“He had pre-existing allergies that he chose not to disclose to us,” said Debby Carreau, a certified Canada HR Professional who is president and chief consultant of Inspired HR in Calgary.

He was the No. 2 chef at a high-volume restaurant. At first he used paid sick and vacation days, but “ultimately he was moved to a role where he didn’t touch food,” she said.

She suspects that the employee, who worked for her client’s company, did not have transferrable skills for a job that would pay as well and “was trying to make it work.”

Rather than trying to make it work, some try to work the system.

Jane Angelich’s all-time favorite excuse came from a member of her HR department when Angelich was vice president of HR for Salomon Brothers.

The worker “called in and told me she was in the hospital, calling from her bed, and was having a spinal tap. One hour later she was at work.

“It had started to rain and my guess is that her real plans changed. When asked how the spinal tap went, she answered ‘fine’ and changed the subject. It seemed a ‘bit out there’ at the time, and 25 years later it still seems that way,” Angelich said in an e-mail.

Straining Credulity

A CareerBuilder online survey, conducted in August and September 2011 with 2,696 U.S. HR professionals and hiring managers and 4,384 full-time U.S. workers, unearthed the following unusual reasons for taking a sick day:

  • Bats got into the employee’s hair.
  • A refrigerator fell on the employee.
  • A bucket filled with water crashed through the ceiling of a bowling alley and hit the employee on the head.
  • A deer bit the employee while he was hunting.
  • The employee fell out of bed and broke his nose.
  • The employee hurt his back chasing a beaver.
  • The employee had to go to the hospital after accidentally drinking anti-freeze.
  • The employee got his toe caught in a vent cover.
  • The employee caught a cold from a puppy.
  • The employee got sick from eating too much at a party.
  • The employee developed a headache from attending too many garage sales.

“While outrageous events are known to happen, frequent absences and over-the-top excuses can start to bring your credibility into question,” CareerBuilder’s vice president of HR, Rosemary Haefner, said in a news release.

Sometimes the reason for calling in sick has nothing to do with an illness, such as the employee whose 12-year-old daughter stole his car and he had no way to get to work, according to the CareerBuilder survey.

One woman wanted to use a sick day after a truck hauling flour backed up and dumped its contents into her convertible while she was standing in line at a coffee shop.

Then there was the employee who wanted to use sick time because the worker’s brother-in-law reportedly had been kidnapped by a drug cartel in Mexico.

Alex Naoum, who manages a hair salon chain and cosmetology school, recalls the morning an employee called in sick to be with her boyfriend, who was down in the dumps after being laid off.

She was “a struggling mother of two who lived with her boyfriend,” Naoum told SHRM Online.

She wasn’t required to bring a doctor’s note for taking a sick day, Naoum said, “because we are constantly under threat of our commission-based stylists moving to chair rental salons where they are able to schedule their own time [and] not declare income.”

However, the employee did not get paid for her time off and missed out on any commissions and tips for the day.

“She did not have to make up the hours, but she also would not have wanted to; she was one that would complain about not having money but also did not want to work more than 20 hours per week,” Naoum said in an e-mail.

One man’s wrongful use of a sick day got him fired, although it had more to do with his breach of contract than faking illness.

Inspired HR’s Carreau said the personal trainer for one of her client companies used a sick day to meet with a reporter at a local newspaper, hoping to get some ink about the private outdoor boot camp he ran on the side.

His side business was a conflict of interest that breached his corporate contract. The employee was busted after his picture and story were plastered over the front page of the next day’s lifestyle section.

Absences can take an economic toll on a business, whatever the reason.

The September 2011 issue of HR Magazine reported that U.S. Department of Labor studies found that absences cost U.S. employers as much as $100 billion per year. Indirect costs include hiring temporary workers and overtime for workers picking up the slack for absent employees.

Indirect costs of unplanned absences “are at least equivalent to the direct costs of incidental absence and disability programs,” according to Mercer’sSurvey on Absence and Disability Management 2010,which it released in June 2011.

That amounts to 8 percent of payroll for the typical employer, Mercer estimated. The findings are from a survey of 473 U.S. employers that Mercer fielded in March-September 2010.

Employers More Flexible

Often there is some wiggle room about what constitutes a sick day, though, according to CareerBuilder’s Haefner.

One man in the CareerBuilder survey, for example, called in sick because he had to rush his child to the emergency room to dislodge a mint the child had shoved up its nose.

“Many employers are more flexible in their definition of a sick day and will allow employees to use them to recharge and take care of personal needs,” she said in a news release. “This is especially evident post-recession when employees have taken on added responsibilities and are working longer days.”

That was the case when Erik Walker received an 8 a.m. call from a distraught employee who had a hamster emergency. Walker is HR manager at BestEssayHelp, a professional writing and research company where he hires, trains and monitors the company’s customer support representatives.

The woman’s hamster was giving birth and she got so sick witnessing the blessed event that she passed out, she told him.

“We do understand that there are some emergencies when the doctor’s note is not possible to acquire,” Walker said. “For the most part we trust employees in such circumstances,” especially because no doctor’s note typically means that the worker must make up the time off. “Otherwise they simply won't get paid for those hours they missed.”

“Your best bet,” Haefner advised workers, “is to be upfront with your manager” when calling in sick.

And maybe have a midwife on hand for the hamster mama-to-be.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.



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