QAdavidlewis_Body.jpgby Iris Dorbian.

As president of the 12-year-old OperationsInc, a Stamford, Connecticut-based company that offers HR solutions and consulting to small and medium-sized businesses, David Lewis is an expert when it comes to dissecting employment issues, particularly sick pay policies. In light of the recent flu outbreak, considered one of the worst to hit mainstream and corporate America in years, this topic has a special timely resonance. Recently, Lewis talked with business writer Iris Dorbian, where he offered up a few tips on how small businesses can institute an effective sick pay policy that both maintains productivity and respects employees who are genuinely ill and not faking it.

ID: As an HR professional/expert, what are some of the current trends and/or developments you see when it comes to SMBs' sick pay policies? Are they doing anything now that perhaps wasn’t done before?

DL: For a certain category of those businesses, which often tend to be more blue collar-oriented, they are being forced—and I do mean forced—to provide more comprehensive sick time policies than in the past. I’m referring to [new mandatory paid sick time laws] in the state of Connecticut and in major cities like Seattle and San Francisco. The idea of having a mandatory sick time policy [is increasingly becoming] more common based on state law and maybe on federal law.

So you have companies that traditionally had not paid you if you didn’t show up for work because you were sick now being forced to offer some minimum number of paid sick days. And then for the rest of the country, you have a bunch of [health] issues in the last several years where more small businesses are starting to formalize policy and offer paid sick time as a way to make their employees feel better about the company.

The majority of businesses in the white-collar space already offer some type of sick leave benefit. The standard is about five days of sick time [per year]. That’s not to say you won’t find more generous packages. [These can] range from more days to the ability to carry the time over and bank it, all the way to the point that you’ve got some trendier firms making the decision to offer unlimited sick time.

ID: What’s the cost of “presenteeism”? How does it impact productivity in the long run?

DL: Hugely. We have 5,000 subscribers to a newsletter and we put something out three weeks ago that talked about the importance of employers reaching out to their employees to remind them that being noble and dragging themselves to work while being infected with what’s being described as the worst flu ever is not doing anybody good. We have a couple of clients who lost 40 percent of their staff for a week because of the flu—40 percent of a small business’s workforce is just devastating.

[Unfortunately], it’s very much a mixed message out there in the business community: you’re allotted five paid sick days, but please note that if you use most or all of them it will be used against you when measuring your performance and dedication to the company. Of course, a policy’s message is never really communicated that way, but that’s what a lot of employees feel in terms of how companies respond to employees who wind up being out sick.

QAdavidlewis_PQ.jpgID: So how do you combat presenteeism and do it in a way that’s both favorable to the employer and employee?

DL: I think practically speaking when employees come to work while they’re sick they’re going to be likely spreading what they have to others in the workplace. Also, it’s probably going to be a less productive day for that individual who’s not operating at 100 percent. You have to look at the practicality of it for your business: if people who are feeling ill are compelled to work, see if it’s possible to have them work from home. In this day and age, more positions in the workforce can be performed at a remote level; if the person is able to do the job from home, then it’s even a dumber move to allow them to come into the office. Let them work from home. Get them a Skype account and have them participate in meetings through Skype where they’re not going to spread germs to others when they cough, sneeze, or shake hands.

ID: Based on your knowledge and experience, what would be your best practices to small businesses seeking to institute an effective sick pay policy?

DL: We advise our clients to provide their employees with five paid sick days a year, but don’t allow for carryover—have it be a “use it or lose it” policy. Never make it so rigid that if they have to take more than five days that it results in the person’s pay being docked or worse. Now the people who abuse it, the people who are faking illness or using it for vacation time—those people should be disciplined up to and including termination.


Look at it from the perspective that five days is a fair number. If your policies are written correctly in your handbook, they’ll always provide you, as the employer, with optimum flexibility to deal with situations on a case-by-case basis.

The big challenge here is that for some employees you’re not going to want to offer that option. For some employees you might view the sick time they’ve taken as excessive or questionable. You just have to be careful about how selective you are because you can put yourself in the position where you look like you’re being discriminatory in some fashion against some group of people by doing that case-by-case thing. And you don’t want to get yourself in the position that in an effort to do the right thing for certain employees and discipline others you wind up with a lawsuit or some type of complaint from a state or federal agency.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and interviewees.  You should consult a qualified HR professional to assist you in developing and implementing sound personnel policies and practices.

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