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Dear Ken Keller,

I’ve got a problem every winter. Employees who are sick with a cold, the flu, or a bug of some sort, come to work.

All day long they cough, sneeze and look and speak as if they are ill. Which they are!

While we have work to do, I don’t want sick employees coming to work. These ill employees are getting my other employees sick. What can I do?

– Mary Y.

Dear Mary:

What you are experiencing happens every year, starting in the late summer and running through the middle of June. The “my employees are sick” season falls directly in line with the public school year calendar.

Classrooms are Petri dishes for colds, the flu and every other known illness that can be spread. Parents with school aged children, up to and including college, often bring those germs to places of employment.

Once in your workplace, those germs spread quickly, infecting your employees. Your workplace then becomes a second Petri dish, with germs on keyboards, doors, coffee pots, coffee cups, phones, a computer mouse; faucets; anywhere a human touches.

A New York Times article from 2006 states:

… cold and flu viruses survive longer on inanimate surfaces that are nonporous, like metal, plastic and wood, and less on porous surfaces, like clothing, paper and tissue. Most flu viruses can live one to two days on nonporous surfaces, and 8 to 12 hours on porous surfaces. But a 2006 study found that avian influenza seemed particularly hardy, surviving as long as six days on some surfaces.

Cold viruses, however, deteriorate quickly. A study in 2007 found that when objects in a hotel room — light switches, telephones — were contaminated with a cold virus, 60 percent of healthy volunteers picked up the virus when they touched one of the objects an hour later. Eighteen hours later, the transmission rate was cut in half.

On skin, cold and flu viruses generally last less than a few minutes, but that can be plenty of time: studies show that most people touch their hands or mouth several times in the course of daily activities — enough to cause infection.

Whatever viruses or bacteria that picked up in your facility travels with your employees via cars, clothes, purses, briefcases and backpacks home. From there it is transported again visit classrooms and other places of work.

For months on end, this can be a never ending cycle.

Back to your original question; it may well be time to review your sick day policies.

Some employees will use every single sick day that they have been granted simply because sick days are viewed as paid holidays. You will know who these people likely are by simply reviewing their records.

Other employees will seldom use their sick days because they don’t want to miss work, regardless of whether or not they are sick. These so-called martyrs may be the well-intentioned dedicated employees who leave their fellow employees coughing and sneezing in their wake.

Still others will use the sick days they need to and let the rest accrue.

Understand that some employees will come to work when they are ill because they need the income.

Most employers tend to set up their sick day policies to manage those who take advantage of their employer. You did not say it but that is what I suspect is happening in your company.

Your goal should be to have people stay home to recover when they are sick and to eliminate the risk of spreading whatever illness they have to other employees.

Many employers do what is usual and customary in their industry when setting these kinds of policies.

My experience is that these are not always policies of an employer of choice. What they do is cater to the lowest common denominator of the most disengaged employee who will take advantage whenever possible for time off with pay.

My recommendation is that you try to find a solution that addresses the needs of your employees and meets your goals and that may require out of the box thinking which may be more expensive but will also gain employee loyalty and improved productivity of the entire team.

Ken Keller is a syndicated business columnist focused on the leadership needs of small and midsize closely held companies. Contact him at KenKeller@SBCglobal.net. Keller’s column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of this media outlet.

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