‘My Co-worker Is Always Out Sick!’

Photo: The Cut

Dear Boss,

I’m at the end of my rope with a co-worker who is constantly out of the office. Every month, “Jane” will take at least two sick days, leave mid-day several times for some “emergency,” and dramatically leave work while crying at least once. After these incidents, she’ll often work from home a couple days following a breakdown (sometimes up to a week after the fact), even though it’s an accepted policy at our office to work from home only about twice per month. In the rare instance that she does come in the day after crying, she’ll mope around the office acting sad and pitiful in the hopes that someone will ask her what is wrong.

She’s more than burned through the five allotted days of sick time we’re given per year, but clearly doesn’t use vacation time to cover the difference, because she has taken multiple weeklong vacations. As a salaried employee, she’s getting away with taking far more personal and sick time than anyone else in the office gets.

I’ve spoken to my manager about it twice, saying I find it incredibly unfair that Jane is given so much lenience, but both times I’ve been told that as long as it isn’t directly affecting my performance, I should just let it go. However, anytime Jane’s time away does have an effect on the rest of our team (which it has, several times this year), she gets a warning, and then she continues to behave the exact same way.

I find myself annoyed and angry at her antics every day she pulls something new, and at this point I’m having a hard time enjoying the work I do when I’m stuck on the same team as such an unreliable co-worker. I also find it frustrating that I work hard to be a good, dependable employee while she clearly does not, and yet we still get the same performance reviews and compensation at the end of each year. 

I’m tired of seeing this happen time and time again, yet our manager is clearly not willing to do anything about it. Is my only option to keep my head down and ignore it, or find a new job?

Well, probably.

And that’s understandably frustrating. You’re not wrong to feel this is tremendously unfair, and to resent that your co-worker has such a cavalier attitude toward showing up at work — and more importantly, that your manager doesn’t seem willing to do anything about it.

But it’s also important to realize that you don’t necessarily have all the facts here. You said that Jane is getting the same performance review and salary as you are — but do you really know that? Most people don’t know what kind of feedback their co-workers are getting behind closed doors, let alone what they’re getting paid. (There are some exceptions to that, like government agencies where salaries are publicly available, but those jobs tends to be in the minority.)

It’s also possible that there are other things about Jane’s situation that you don’t know. For example, it’s possible that she’s taking unpaid leave to cover all those absences, which is something you probably wouldn’t know about if it were happening. It’s also possible that she’s dealing with a health condition and her time off is legally protected by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) — which, again, is something that your manager probably wouldn’t share with you out of respect for Jane’s privacy. (FMLA leave would also cover time off to take care of a sick spouse or child — which could explain the mid-day emergency departures and, if she’s dealing with a stressful family situation, perhaps the crying as well.)

Similarly, she might have negotiated more work-from-home time than other people have because of her or her family’s health needs, or another situation that you’re not privy to. Your manager saying you should let it go because it’s not affecting your work is exactly what you’d probably hear if this is indeed what’s going on.

Or maybe not. It’s also possible that Jane is just flagrantly abusing your workplace’s good will, and that your manager is being negligent in letting it go unaddressed.

But this is the kind of thing that can be very difficult to know from where you’re standing. You’re assuming the worst interpretation, and you might be right. But it’s helpful to keep in mind that there are other possible explanations too, and you might not know the whole story.

If you want to increase your odds of figuring out what’s really happening, I’d look at what else you know about your manager. Is she usually good about addressing problems, or does she avoid hard conversations? Is she generally an effective manager or have you seen her being negligent in important ways in the past? Is she normally pretty even-handed when it comes to enforcing company policies, or is she inconsistent? If she’s typically an effective manager who’s both fair and forthright about addressing problems, then the chances are pretty good that there’s more to the situation with Jane than you know — and that it would be more understandable if you had all the information. On the other hand, if you know that your manager wimps out when it comes to addressing problems, it’s safer to assume that might be happening here too.

And frankly, even if something is going on behind-the-scenes that makes Jane’s absences more reasonable, your manager should be thinking more about the optics of the situation. It’s easy to tell people they should mind their own business when something doesn’t affect their work, but people understandably get demoralized when a situation looks the way this one does. Ideally your manager would find something she could say to you that doesn’t violate Jane’s privacy but assures you that Jane has negotiated specific arrangements and isn’t being cavalier about her work.

In any case, while there’s not a ton you can do to change the situation or to demand more information about it, one thing you can do is let your manager know when it’s impacting you or your work. If you’re not getting work you need from Jane in order to move your own projects forward, or if having to cover for her when she’s out means that you don’t have time to meet your own deadlines, or if you’re spending time talking with her clients because she’s always out when they call, those are things you can talk to your boss about. If there’s a work impact from Jane’s absences, let your boss know — don’t feel like you have to cover it all on your own.

Beyond that, though, the situation is really your manager’s to handle. You’ve let her know it’s demoralizing, and from there it’s up to her to decide what to do about it. And on your end, regardless of what’s really going on, it’s probably better for your mental health to assume that there might be more happening than you see — unless it’s proven otherwise.

Order Alison Green’s book, Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work, here. Got a question for her? Email Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

‘My Co-worker Is Always Out Sick!’