Should you call in sick if you aren't?

Bonnie Russell considers herself a workaholic, logging long hours as a legal publicist. But that doesn't mean she never takes time off. Every three or four months, when she was employed in law firms, she would call in sick, although she felt fine. Even now, as her own boss, she still takes the equivalent of sick time.

"It's not a sick day, it's a well day," says Ms. Russell, who runs 1st-Pick.com in Del Mar, Calif. "It blows out the cobwebs and puts things in perspective."

That kind of artful redefinition is common this time of year, when many companies enforce use-it-or-lose-it policies. Determined not to waste sick leave that expires Dec. 31, an estimated 30 percent of those with unused days are taking them under some pretense, says John Dantico, a compensation consultant in Northbrook, Ill.

Employees use "sick days" for many purposes, as last week's mass absence of unhappy US Airways workers shows. Whatever the reason, 1 in 5 American adults has called in sick on at least one occasion when they weren't ill, according to a Harris Interactive survey.

That raises a question: When is it ethical to use sick days?

The issue is "always problematic," says Stephen Fox, a labor and employment attorney in Dallas. "You have those employees who take sick time as it's supposed to be taken, when you're truly sick or have someone under your care who is sick. Then there are those employees who say, 'Hey, it's a free day off.' "

Such attitudes can create tension between those who follow the rules and those who skirt them. But some break the rules because their employers' sick-day policies give them few options.

"Companies create problems for themselves when they have a policy saying that sick leave is only for the employee," says Keith Greene, a director at the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va. If workers have a sick child to care for, they may be forced to claim illness for themselves, he adds.

Situations such as this are one factor prompting some firms to change the way they give time off. Instead of dividing it into vacation days and sick leave, they combine the two into paid time off - a leave bank. Workers can use the days as they choose, with no explanations necessary. "Employees call in and say, 'I'm taking a leave day,' " Mr. Greene explains. "That stops the situation of lying."

That approach liberates workers as well as bosses.

"I want to get the employer out of the role of being a doctor and out of the role of being a policeman," Mr. Fox says. "We're saying, 'We don't really care how you take the time off.' "

That attitude can have varying repercussions in companies.

"If an employee doesn't show up for work and there's no harm to the employer from that absence, it's less serious," says John Boatwright, a professor of business ethics at Loyola University in Chicago. "But once there's a wink and a nod about one policy, there's a spillover effect to other policies ... that can be very damaging to the organization."

The impact of taking sick leave, for whatever purpose, varies from business to business. Airlines, hospitals, and schools need certain people in specific roles. "If they're not there, you need to establish some backup," says Sue Holloway of WorldatWork, a human resources association in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Whatever the industry, workplace experts do not see evidence of widespread abuses of sick leave. General-leave policies in particular can create "an environment of trust," says Linda Treviño, professor of organizational behavior at Penn State University's business school.

But when trust falters, employees may use sick leave as an economic weapon to express their frustration over the handling of labor issues, as many US Airways baggage handlers, ramp workers, and flight attendants did last week.

"Employees, when they perceive that they've been unfairly treated in any way, will feel justified in engaging in different kinds of behavior that we might call harmful to the organization," says Ms. Treviño. "They will feel justified in taking whatever leave is 'owed' them."

For other workers, debates about the ethics of taking sick leave remain a luxury. "The majority of low-income people get no sick time," says Netsy Firestein, director of the Labor Project for Working Families in Berkeley, Calif. "When they're sick, they're either going to work sick, or they're losing pay."

More than half of workers in the private sector and in state and local government receive no paid sick leave, says the Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington.

For those who receive sick days, Russell defends their occasional use by employees who are well, emphasizing their energizing effect. "They're way better than any motivational seminar the company could hold for its employees," she says.

Time away from work is probably the single most difficult issue for employers to resolve with employees, Fox notes. But "in the final analysis, you've got to create a workplace where the employee wants to come to work unless they're truly sick, in which case they need to be away from work to take care of themselves."

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