Ask a Boss: My Boss Is Making Everyone Sick!

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Dear Boss,

My supervisor is constantly sick. She comes to work ill, and claims her young son has gotten her sick. She coughs into her hand and touches the phone and other desk items we share, effectively spreading her germs far and wide. Our team works close together, which puts the rest of us at risk for getting sick. As much as we arm ourselves with hand sanitizers, Clorox wipes, Lysol, flu shots, and, in the case of one colleague, rubber gloves, sometimes we catch her illnesses.

I have tried to discuss this with her, coming from a place of concern and asking her if she’s seen a doctor, but she laughed and dismissed me. I approached her boss about talking to her, but she wouldn’t because it was “awkward.” (She really used that word.) Our organization lacks human resources, so I don’t know where else to turn.

Do you have advice for handling this situation delicately and with care, so my colleagues and I can remain healthy?

This kind of behavior is the scourge of offices during the winter

Sometimes employers are at fault, if they haven’t given people sufficient sick leave or if they don’t provide paid sick leave at all. And if your manager is sick a lot and/or has a frequently sick kid, it’s conceivable that she simply doesn’t have enough sick leave to stay home even if she’d prefer to. But you also see plenty of this behavior in offices with generous sick-leave policies and among people who have plenty of sick leave stored up, because some people apparently think it’s brave or heroic to drag themselves out of their sick beds and into work … where they promptly spread their germs to others.

Whenever you tackle this kind of issue, I think it’s important to acknowledge that you usually can’t know with total confidence where germs are coming from; maybe your manager got you sick, or maybe you picked up something similar from a stranger on the subway. And really, whenever you’re around other people, germs will get spread around; you can’t stamp that out entirely. But when it comes to willful exposure — like what your boss has been doing — it’s reasonable to ask people to cut it out.

However, it doesn’t sound like you’ve quite discussed this with your boss yet. You asked if she’d seen a doctor, yes, but that’s such a subtle approach that it’s pretty likely that your message was missed. The approach you used says “I’m concerned about you,” when the message you really need to deliver is “I’m concerned about the rest of us.”

You might have more success if you deliver that message as a group with some of your co-workers. It’s going to be harder for her to blow you off if a bunch of you are saying, “Hey, this isn’t cool.” If you can get a few people to band together, you could sit down with her and say, “We know you’ve been sick a lot lately, and we really sympathize … but you’ve been coming to work sick and it’s meant that often others of us are catching what you have and getting sick, too. Would you be open to putting some safeguards in place so that we’re not all passing germs around? For example, could we all agree that we’ll try to work from home when we’re sick, or at a minimum work from a private office so that we can limit other people’s exposure?” (And if anyone is immunocompromised or spends time with someone who is, this is the time to mention that.)

The other option would be to have this group conversation with her boss, the one who said it would be too “awkward” to address when you talked to her one on one. The impact of a group will be harder for her to ignore too, and sometimes when a manager finds it to “awkward” to do her job, an effective response is to make it awkward for her not to. It would be entirely reasonable for you all to push her to take action, and you could say it this way: “We don’t have the authority to tell her to stop exposing the rest of us to germs, but you do. We need you to speak up on our behalf, because we’ve already had five colds and three flus among us this winter as a result of this situation and we’re not okay with being willfully exposed.”

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Ask a Boss: My Boss Is Making Everyone Sick!