PTO vs. Sick Days: Signaling Trust, Managing Negative Behavior

PTO vs. Sick Days: Signaling Trust, Managing Negative Behavior

PTO (paid time off) has become the dominant policy among smaller ad agencies, per our latest Annual Agency Survey Report. This merges the earned time off of vacation and sick days into a fund of days employees may use as needed. Some will use their earned time off entirely for vacation days. Others may need days to care for a sick child or ailing parent. Still others may have ongoing health issues requiring time off for doctor’s appointments and treatments. The point is PTO lets employees choose how they use earned benefits.

Vacation Time and PTO

Employers have become more willing to allow employees to self-manage their time. As long as the work gets done, and employees keep managers informed as to changing schedules, PTO works just fine. Some traditional employers have difficulty with letting go of employee time management, still attached to the idea of employees punching the proverbial clock… and ignoring that just because an employee is present does not mean they are more productive. Workforce management trends like ROWE  have shifted emphasis from hours worked to getting the work done within budget and time-frame. PTO fits easily into this more flexible work culture.

Employers must decide what a job is worth when they hire someone under a more flexible work process like ROWE; you are still hiring for skills and abilities, but not measuring performance based on “being present,” instead focusing on productivity measures and task completion/quality—what is being accomplished versus clocking hours.

The greater issue with PTO and the 24/7 work cycle is that many employees fail to take enough time off to rejuvenate and freshen their outlooks. In some organizations, employees confess they feel pressured under PTO arrangements to never take a sick day. They fear being judged by co-workers and management as not sufficiently committed to the work. Management should make sure all employees take at least some scheduled vacation time annually. It’s to their and the organization’s benefit. Pressure to work without ever taking a break is being attributed as a prime cause of sleep deprivation, depression and disengagement among U.S. workers. Don’t be that employer.

What About Sick Days?

Sick days are supposed to be for when an employee is seriously ill, i.e., suffering from a contagious ailment, or just feeling so rotten that they need some solid rest and self-TLC. For instance, when influenza season is upon us, employers can expect to see plenty of ailing workers. Especially for smaller businesses, spreading the flu throughout your staff means trying to get a heavy workload done with too few people. It is plain common sense to ask sick people to stay home until they are no longer contagious. 

Too many younger employees fear that taking sick time will be seen as “slacking” by co-workers or employers… or worse, that they will be seen as “dispensable,” a fear perhaps most deeply felt by millennials, who lost so much career-building time during the Great Recession, and are only now gaining financial stability. Older employees may fear being dispensed with—retired in favor of some youngster who recovers faster or just isn’t as vulnerable to getting ill. Hence the impulse to check in when home sick, respond to emails, and participate in conference calls, even if one is craving sleep and solitude. Avoid pressuring sick employees to “check in” or participate from home. Uninterrupted rest and a mental break can greatly speed recovery. Respect the ailing; tell them to get better soon, but do it at home.

Abuses of PTO

Where sick days and vacation days are rolled together into a self-administered paid time off (PTO) package, employees who abuse PTO by calling in sick frequently, leaving co-workers and project deadlines in the lurch, can be a problem. If an employee frequently calls in sick leaving their teams or management scrambling to cover the absence, address the behavior promptly in a one-on-one conversation with the employee.

Note dates of recent absences and their frequency, and the disruption to the schedule. Ask the employee for their story. Why are they taking so many absences; is there an issue they need help with? Are there ongoing health issues the employee is not tackling through doctor care? If there is another outside issue driving the absences, seek ways to adjust schedules or help the employee sort it out. Check your leaves of absence policy and see if the employee may want to take advantage of that option; then take steps to reorganize the team to cope with the employee’s absence.

If repeat absences aren’t due to anything but a disinclination to be in the office, a deeper conversation is needed. Is the employee unhappy in his or her job? Probe for reasons for the absences. Make it clear the absences cannot continue if they want to stay with the agency. Ask them to consider how their repeated absences affect other members of the team, and clients expecting work to be done on schedule. How would they feel if they were team members whose colleague was absent so often? Discuss how to adjust unacceptable behaviors, and set a time for a follow-up or check-in. 

Document all conversations and the plan for adjusting behavior. If behaviors continue, you’ll have records that you worked with the employee but they did not respond in good faith. Often, knowing their behavior has drawn manager attention is enough to get them back on par with the rest of the team.

It’s also an HR best practice to acknowledge when an employee successfully resets a bad behavior. Make sure to reward good behavior. And be on the lookout for backsliding.

Clear Employee Policies Are Key

No matter how your vacation/sick time is structured, state policies clearly in an employee policies manual provided to every employee. Then allow employees to see that you trust them to know the policies and apply them like responsible adults. You shouldn’t need to spend valuable business time managing employee sick days or PTO. Treat employees like grown-ups and stay focused on the work, your clients and the agency brand.


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