Should employees be able to report sickness via text, social media?

Employees at Lakeside Process Controls Ltd., a process automation company based in Mississauga, Ont., sometimes call in sick by sending text messages to their managers.

“I think it’s a natural form of communication,” says Stephanie Enright, the organization’s human resources manager. “We’re all used to texting. If a manager was out of the office and people need to communicate, they usually text if they want an immediate response.”

Not everyone sees it that way, however. While text messaging has become a relatively common practice in today’s workplace, some employers are still hesitant about receiving notice of an absence through text messages, social media or email.

According to research conducted by Rune Vejby, a cultural analyst who wrote a book about how text-based media is changing relationships, only 33 per cent of managers at small- to medium-sized enterprises in the United States find it acceptable for employees to call in sick that way. About 38 per cent will accept it but prefer phone calls, while 29 per cent find the practice unacceptable.

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Texting is a medium of choice outside of work, so it makes sense for people to use it in the workplace, says Vejby. As well, texting may relieve the stress people face when calling in sick, he adds. “It takes the edge off of a potentially anxiety-provoking encounter if it can be handled on your smartphone.”Being-Sick

Employers, however, are still adapting to the way many people prefer to communicate. As Vejby points out, many managers are of a different generation than their employees. “While millennials consider it natural to text in sick, most of their managers grew up with the notion that reporting in sick should be done over the phone.”

Still, some companies find phone calls push employees to be accountable, says Antoinette Blunt, president of Ironside Consulting Services Inc. “People tend to be more honest when they’re speaking to someone live.”

What about social media?

While texting may be acceptable in some circumstances, most workplaces aren’t comfortable with communicating through social media, says Blunt.

In turn, it’s rare for employees to use social media for reporting absences, says Vejby, whose research found only two per cent of U.S. workers aged 18 to 34 called in sick that way.

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At Lakeside Process Controls, the practice is non-existent. “Usually, people would have to be personally connected through Facebook to message each other,” says Enright. “The personal side of social media is not used in how we conduct our business.”

Clarifying expectations

Reporting absences is fundamental because managers need to know when employees plan to return to work and information such as whether they need short-term accommodation, says Blunt. Such details could be missing from text messages, she adds, suggesting employers should consider having policies with guidelines on how employees should call in sick so they know what the company expects.

Lakeside Process Controls doesn’t have a formal policy but it does have rules in order to ensure accountability, says Enright. For instance, managers need to receive adequate notification of absences and, if someone misses work for more than three days, the company requires a doctor’s note.

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When absences become recurring, managers will often initiate conversations to address the behaviour and any “underlying issues that we should be aware of,” says Enright.

“More often than not, if we get into that situation, it’s more than just surface issues. There’s usually something bigger going on there. So active communication immediately is the best.”

Jann Lee is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.

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