Should Companies Excuse Excuses?

Is it best to acknowledge that some days your company’s employees simply won’t want to come to work, or is it better to require them to give a reason for days off, and plan in advance?

If it’s just a single day now and then, and the employee has a good record, I would argue that it should be OK for the employee to just e-mail or text their boss and say something like: “Hi, I don’t feel like coming to the office today—I’m just not in the mood. I’ll be sure to catch up on everything tomorrow. Thanks!” Does that kind of note from an employee rub you the wrong way, or does it seem like a refreshing change of pace?

CareerBuilder just released its annual study on absurd employee excuses for calling in “sick.” It’s rich with comedy:

  1. Employee claimed his grandmother poisoned him with ham.
  2. Employee was stuck under the bed.
  3. Employee broke his arm reaching to grab a falling sandwich.
  4. Employee said the universe was telling him to take a day off.
  5. Employee’s wife found out he was cheating. He had to spend the day retrieving his belongings from the dumpster.
  6. Employee poked herself in the eye while combing her hair.
  7.  Employee said his wife put all his underwear in the washer.
  8. Employee said the meal he cooked for a department potluck didn’t turn out well.
  9. Employee was going to the beach because the doctor said she needed more vitamin D.
  10. Employee said her cat was stuck inside the dashboard of her car.

Most people are better liars than this, but I wonder whether the concept of sick and personal days are too formal and structured for the realities of life. I’ve never come up with a creative excuse to get out of work (as an adult), and I’ve always powered through my feelings of inertia to get to the office. But some of the days I force myself to trudge to the office are not overly productive. On those days, I ask myself whether I would have been better off spending the day doing something that makes me happy, like looking at art in a museum that’s nearly vacant in the middle of a weekday. The logic isn’t just based on the joy of giving in to laziness. It’s the belief that if you give yourself leeway to listen to your moods, you can return the next day refreshed and motivated to be productive. In fact, if you take an unexpected day off, the next day often is super-productive because it has to be—you’ve “lost” a day of work, so you need to be on top of your game to catch up on your assignments.

When your work schedule is one long slog with infrequent breaks, it becomes like running a marathon. You keep your pace on the slow side because you have so far to go. But when your schedule becomes compressed, you act more like a sprinter—becoming super-focused and efficient to make your deadlines. At least that’s how I operate. How about you? Do you think that pattern is true of the majority of workers?

In training on productivity, what are the best strategies to teach employees and managers about time management and giving into feelings of inertia? The conventional thinking is that unplanned-for-inertia-based time off is a slippery slope that can go from the rare “mental health day” to every other Monday morning.

I think that if an employee in our competitive employment marketplace is evaluated as worthy to hire, and then they prove themselves with great work that’s turned in on time, then regulations on time and place should be disposed of. As I’ve noted before, the goal is to have employees who do reliably good work, and get it done on time. It’s silly, and anachronistic with the flexibility today’s technology allows, to force high-performing employees into a time-constraint box.

You could always enforce tight controls on schedule and time off for the first six months, or year, of employment, and then allow the employee to self-monitor. If all the work gets done, and the employee makes it on time to all the meetings she’s invited to, who cares if every other Monday her cat needs to get his teeth cleaned?

How do you cultivate a workforce that is productive, with no need for excuses, and with no time-crunch crises getting work done?