my employee keeps coming to work sick — Ask a Manager

here are the 10 best questions to ask your job interviewer — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

Now that the pandemic is “over” ( /s) and all the rules and restrictions have pretty much been lifted, I have a question: as a manager, what can I do to make people stay home when they’re sick?

I’m the director of a mid-sized public library, and we have a librarian, “Brian,” who has myriad health problems accompanied by an apparently very low immune system. He also is hyper-driven to come to work, dragging himself in despite the protests of his colleagues. The only person he’ll listen to is me when I tell him he has to go home, but I’m not always in the building to enforce this. I have had to drive him home due to illness multiple times (as has another staff member, too many times to count), and I even took him to the emergency room one time at his request. He has gotten the rest of us sick over and over by coming in to work and refusing to go home — he’s a walking super-spreader.

We all know that a major reason for this is that his wife is intensely controlling, and we think he comes to work because she forces him (we not-so-jokingly say she’s driving him into an early grave for the insurance money). He is also intensely protective of his leave balance, despite maxing it out and selling time back to the city if/when vacation buyback is offered (if it’s not offering, he just loses it).

We have one staff member with long Covid, one who’s just finished treatment for cancer, I have Lyme disease and a low immune system, etc. etc. — and that’s not to mention all of the immunocompromised patrons who come in our doors every day.

I’ve tried to get him to work from home when he’s unwell and he refuses, saying if he goes home he’ll just go to bed; I feel like if he is so unwell that he needs to go to bed, he should go home and keep his germs to himself.

Most recently, Brian tested positive for Covid two weeks ago after an international trip, took a few days off, came back to work and wore a mask for a day or so, and then tonight texted that he has a fever and tested positive for Covid again (rebound?) — and I’m currently home sick with Covid-like symptoms. I think he gave it to me, argh! I’m so tired of feeling like I’m his mother, managing his sicknesses and feelings about taking time off and dealing with the fallout when he gets the rest of us sick. Is there anything I can do to make him stop spreading his nasty germs?

You’re his manager. You have a ton of power to solve this.

Often when people have this complaint about a germ-spreading coworker, there’s very little they can do about it. They can beg and cajole and ask someone above them to take action — but ultimately they’re at someone else’s mercy.

That’s not the case for you. You can and should use your authority as a manager to insist that Brian stop coming to work sick and stop putting patrons and colleagues at risk.

The conversation you need to have is: “You have repeatedly come to work while sick and infected other people, including me. We have immunocompromised employees here, as well as immunocompromised patrons. You cannot knowingly come to work while you’re sick. This is not optional. If at any point you are concerned about your sick leave balance, please come to me so we can figure it out. But you can’t continue showing up ill and potentially contagious. I will send you home every time that happens, and if I learn you stayed here sick while I wasn’t present, I will consider that a serious issue that we need to act on. Can you agree to this?”

Now, because you work for the government, you might need to run this by someone above you to make sure they’ll back your authority to require this and that they’re not going to require you to navigate it differently. If your employer is particularly crappy in its bureaucracy and you know this won’t be an easy sell, use your knowledge of your organization’s politics to navigate it. That might mean adjusting the language above, or it might mean going to HR and saying “this is the outcome I want; how do I get there?” or it might mean just quietly acting on your own. It’ll depend on your particular flavor of government bureaucracy.

But you do need to act, because Brian’s behavior could have consequences more serious than just giving someone a cold.

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