“Can you imagine if this had happened when we worked at Company X?” My friend Courtney asked me. It was March of this year, and both of us were recovering from serious health issues that required time off from work.
“No, I couldn’t,” I said.
Both Courtney and I had approached our managers requesting extended sick time, and both of us had received the best possible answer: “Of course. Take what you need, and please stay in touch.”
It was a complete 180 from Company X, where she and I met many years ago. Although we both gained valuable experience during our time there and had worked with some phenomenal people, what we learned most was how not to do things.
For starters, this particular company was very stingy when it came to paid time off. We were given 10 vacation days, which means if you go away for a week (as most people tend to do), that leaves just five days.
We were, however, allotted two sick days in addition to that. But in order to claim these days, we had to provide documentation, such as a doctor’s note — which, by the way, I don’t even have to do for my six-year-olds — or a receipt from an urgent care clinic. It was as if management was assuming we couldn’t be trusted; that we were all trying to buck the system.
I remember one time when I had caught a stomach bug. And so, rather than returning to work right away and infecting my coworkers (some of whom had young children), I opted to stay home and wait until I was feeling 100 percent better — or least 80. But because, like most adults, I don’t feel the need to visit a physician’s office to hear, ‘drink plenty of liquids and get plenty of rest,’ I wasn’t able to produce evidence of my sickness.
“I don’t know what to tell you, that’s the policy,” said the person in charge of payroll (which was the closest thing we had to an HR department).
“Okay,” I said. “Would you like my receipt from Stop and Shop? I bought Saltines and ginger ale.”
And then there was a coworker who had used up his sick days — all two of them — but had requested another to accompany his wife to a procedure. His request was denied, and Tom (one of the hardest working, most well-liked people in the company) was forced to spend a “vacation day” sitting in a hospital waiting room.
“There’s got to be a better way,” I recall thinking.
As it turns out, there is. During a recent interview with three CIOs — Tressa Springmann, Sarah Richardson, and Julie Bonello — this very topic came up. At LifeBridge Health, where Springmann has been CIO for 6 years, a policy was implemented whereby every pay period, employees accrue a certain amount of time that’s “free from inquiries” as to why it’s needed. “When you need to take that time, you go ahead and take it,” she noted, adding that it’s leadership’s responsibility to provide a “safe environment” for employees.
Now, at first, I have to admit I was thrown by the word ‘safe,’ which has taken on a different meaning in light of incidents like the infamous Halloween costume controversy at Yale, during which students claimed certain ensembles made them feel ‘unsafe.’ Not because of the presence of weapons, mind you, but because of the implied cultural insensitivity.
In this context, however, ‘safe’ has a different connotation — it means employees are entitled to privacy when asking for time off. At LifeBridge (and many other organizations), it also means that staff members who have proven their value can take leave if they need to. “It’s critical that they don’t have to worry about the security of their job,” Springmann said.
Of course, there are individuals who will take advantage of these types of benefits, which can make it difficult when you’re trying to foster a culture of trust and respect. So what’s a leader to do? Simple: use your judgement. If the person who’s requesting additional sick time has burned you before — whether it was by posting pics on Facebook from a baseball game while claiming to have strep throat, or always getting ‘a migraine’ on the Friday before a holiday weekend — you’re justified in saying no. But if it’s someone who has gone above and beyond, never giving you no reason to doubt his or her integrity, maybe cut them some slack.
I’ll never forget what Anthony told me when I was the one who needed some slack. He didn’t hesitate to give me time off, because I had “built up enough equity” with the company through my hard work. It reminded me of a column he wrote about giving his landscaper a second chance after he had gone MIA.
“When you operate with a high level of service, you build up a tremendous amount of goodwill, and it is this account you tap when times go bad,” he wrote.
When leaders demonstrate this type of confidence in an individual, chances are they’re going to get even more goodwill and hard work in return.
To me, that’s not just safe — it’s smart.