my employees’ juice cleanses are getting in the way of their work

A reader writes:

I manage a team of five. (For context, we are all women and on friendly terms, and some of the women have closer friendships.)

One of my staff, Hester, does some variation of a week-long juice cleanse or other liquid diet about once per year, and has for the four years she has been on my team. During that week each time, she arrives late or leaves early for three to four days due to headache, dizziness, or generally feeling crummy. She has not so far acknowledged the pattern in her absences, so maybe is not even aware of it?

Hester is a highly reliable employee the rest of the year and rarely gets sick. It’s not a terribly busy time of year, and she finishes all required tasks in that week during her cleanse. As a result, I’ve never raised the issue, figuring “her body, her choice” as long as she gets the work done and/or notifies me that she will be using sick leave and need someone to help out on a project.

This month, however, she wrangled another on my team (Pearl) to join the cleanse, too. I’m writing this on Thursday, and since Monday, one or both of them have arrived late or left early every day due to some variant of feeling crummy. Pearl is less reliable and efficient than Hester, causing a slight backlog of tasks this week. They are trying to convince someone on the next team over that she should participate.

I worry about next year having multiple staff feeling poorly, at the same time, and intentionally. This seems different to me than when a nasty cold hits several people in the office over the course of 2 weeks—this is planned and synchronized.

I absolutely do not want to become the sick-leave police. But I also feel like these employees are not coming to work prepared to do their jobs, for several days in a row. Is there a reasonable way to approach this? Or do I suck it up the one week it happens?

I think you’ve been right to leave Hester alone about it before now — she’s a good employee who has one off week a year and still gets all her work done during that time. It makes sense to cut her some slack.

But I also think you’re right to worry now that others are joining her, especially since it’s caused a work backlog and especially because it sounds like they might expand it to still more people.

Still, though, people are allowed to do things outside of work that might impact them during the workday — whether it’s staying up too late reading, or having a fight with their spouse that disrupts their sleep, or coming in with sore arms from overdoing it at the gym. As an employer, you message shouldn’t be “don’t do activity X outside of work.” And in general, you want to assume that you’re managing humans who will have things in their lives (even self-inflicted things) that sometimes affect how they’re showing up to work.

But when if you’re seeing problems in someone’s work, you can flag those problems and say that need them to get back on track. And you can cut less slack / address things more quickly with someone who already wasn’t working at a high level.

In the case of Pearl, you could say, “You’ve come in late or left early several days this week and your work is backlogged. If you decide to do a cleanse again, I’d need you to do it in a way where you still stay on top of your work.”

(There’s potentially an argument for saying this without tying it to the cleanse at all … but I don’t think you have to pretend that there’s not an obvious cause-and-effect in play. You could say the same thing if it was “if you choose to run a marathon again” or “if you choose to fly to out-of-town music festivals ever weekend”).

I also played around with the idea of whether you could say something to Hester like, “You’re a good employee, and so it’s been fine with me that you have a week a year where you’re not at 100% while you do the cleanse. But with other people joining you in it, there’s more of an impact on our workflow. We ended up having a backlog this week, and I suspect the impact would increase if additional people join in the future. I’ll of course talk with people individually about any issues it causes to their work, but I wanted to give you some context on why this has never concerned me before, but would concern me more if it starts having a bigger impact on the team.”

But I actually don’t think you should say that. Hester’s work is fine, and your concerns aren’t actually about her. I’d stick with just talking with anyone whose work actually suffers.

my employees’ juice cleanses are getting in the way of their work was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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