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There is an employee I have been working with that told me she is sick a week ago. Yesterday, I tried to contact her through the usual channels and she did not respond. Yesterday she told me that she will call me back through SMS, she did not.

She holds some very important data to the team and I have no idea how to get them back. Should I keep calling her? Try a different number? Or something else?

I do not have any signals that the employee was unhappy, so I am not sure what happened, really.

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    Are you her boss? Are either of you working remotely? Why can't you just walk over to her desk? – jcm Feb 12 at 8:13
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    are you trying to contact her while she's in sick leave ? – GlorfSf Feb 12 at 8:22
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    You need to add a location to this. In some places, trying to contact an employee on sick leave for work reasons is a serious mistake – PhillS Feb 12 at 8:59
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    Is there anyone else that you know of in or out of the company that knows this employee personally that might be able to check on them or otherwise get them a message with what you need and the urgency? – JeffC Feb 12 at 14:43
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    How could she provide this data? If it's something she could tell you over SMS, couldn't you figure it out on your own? – David Thornley Feb 12 at 18:26

10 Answers 10

493

She is not "ghosting" you if she is on sick leave.

The whole point of "sick leave" is that the person is not feeling well and cannot work. She might be resting, she might be out for doctors appointments or physical therapy, she might have taken prescription medicine that makes her drowsy and forgetful, she might lie down in a dark room with piercing headaches that worsen when looking at a light source or computer screen, to make a long story short: she is not fit to work. So don't expect her to do more than the legal minimum, which in my state is notify their employer (which she did), present documentation (which you don't seem to be concerned about, so I guess it's fine) and doing everything in her power to get well soon (which, one could argue, you are actively hindering).

If she has important information that is only in her head and not on file somewhere accessible, that is not her problem, that is your problem as an organisation. Spend the time to improve your processes that this does not happen again. Because she or someone else will get sick again.

Check with your HR what is allowed in your state. Then chose the most unintrusive way to contact her. Maybe email, because that will not sound any bells and does not require immediate attention.

  • 1
    Also a word of warning: Depending on local laws, if you cause/compel your employee to work despite being on sick leave (telling them "we really need that data" might be enough to count) you may open yourself to liability if your employee gets sicker/recovers slower due to working. E.g. your employee with a bad cold comes to office to hand you the files with the crucial data, and next day their cold has worsend to require hospitalization. Their insurance provider might sue you for the costs, as - had the employee stayed at home and rested - they would/might not have gotten sicker. – CharonX Feb 18 at 15:36
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    You know, this is much more relatable to me as an employee than an employer. The person is sick, do not disturb him. Check. The company did not provide a backup plan for getting back the information. Nothing new. Did the employee really go sick? Or simply ghosted us with sickness as the excuse and we have no idea what to expect next? Should the person remain employed in the company? When is the time to consider the person as inactive and not working at the company anymore without legal troubles? No answer. If you begin to see this from the employer's point of view , you see the problem. – Joe Doe Mar 5 at 17:24
  • I have to agree with OP that this is quite a one-sided answer. In Germany it seems that, depending on your position, the nature of your sickness etc. that you are required to be available for calls while on sick leave, which I read here: focus.de/finanzen/praxistipps/… – smcs Apr 16 at 12:27
  • @smcs That whole article is about what you need to do as an employee when you do not have a doctors note. If you are certified sick, you have to do nothing but notify your employer about that fact and give him a copy of that official document. So all the questions the OP may have are about "self-certified-sickness". Well, that is up to the contract because it's not universal. Your working contract is allowed to say "no self-certified-sickness allowed, you need a doctors note for every single day". – nvoigt Apr 16 at 12:36
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    @smcs hm interesting. Do you have a court case or something for that, it sounds like it needs a lot more context. I have held those positions and obviously there is common sense. If I break a leg, I should be able to communicate in my 6 weeks of physical absence from the office. On the other hand I had procedures that caused intense pain when moving or touching my jaw for a week after it and I'd think a lawyer would have a field day with any employer claiming he had any right to get me talking on a phone or in person during that time. – nvoigt Apr 16 at 12:51
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The idea you don’t understand how an employee being out sick works speaks volumes to your core frustrations.

First you say this:

“Yesterday I tried to contact her through the usual channels and she did not respond - yesterday she told me that she will call me back through SMS, but she did not.”

I think she didn’t contact you because… She’s sick and out of the office as a result. You should be grateful she was able to respond to you at all. Your impatience and apparent tone deafness to the idea she is sick is not a motivating factor for her to respond to you.

“I do not have any signals that the employee was unhappy, so I am not sure what happened, really.”

She’s not unhappy: She is sick! While you—and your team—might have business needs to retrieve that data from her I am going to lay out some basic facts:

  • The Fact She Has Critical Data and is Seemingly the Sole Possessor of that Data is Not Her Problem: The fact you are in this kind of situation to begin with speaks not badly on her or you, but the dysfunction of your organization’s business process. This is really the core issue you are facing.
  • The Fact She is Sick is Not a Problem You Can Complain About: Well, I mean you can complain about a co-worker for being sick… And then you—and your organization—will foster a reputation of being jerks who don’t recognize basic human needs. Co-workers are humans and humans get sick. A functional organization would not see someone out sick as being a burden because a functional organization would have ways to work around the temporary loss of a team member.
  • Even the Most “Important” Business Need Does Not Come Before Human Needs: The reality is all of your question implies this data is “important” but is it really important? Is it so important that a sick human needs to strain themselves to accommodate these needs? All of the above points come back to this: If a human resource on your team is sick, they are sick. If the data is/was important then your process doesn’t reflect that since only one person who possessed it and now she is—effectively—being punished by you because she being sick is getting in the way of your business needs.

My best advice is to leave this employee alone and wait for her to come back.

If this means a business process fails, it fails. Your supervisors should be alerted as soon as possible about this and you should indicate clearly that you reached out and did not hear back and—this is important—you don’t feel she should be bothered any further if she’s sick.

You cannot for any reason play this dysfunctional game where an employee is somehow “important” because they are the sole possessor of business data yet they are somehow a “burden” because how dare they get sick in the middle of some critical business need.

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    Want to support the 3rd bullet point. A previous co-worker of mine had a very memorable phrase: "Personal beats catastrophe". Whatever the business need, it's just a business need. Personal emergencies are more important. People before companies. – Tom Feb 13 at 8:26
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In addition to the other correct answers:

Do check with legal.

Depending on your country and applicable legislation, repeated attempts to contact an employee on sick leave may well be illegal. Sick leave is an area of employee protection and typically strictly regulated. An employee has clearly defined responsibilities (informing the company, providing the appropriate doctor papers, etc.) but also clearly defined protections. Some of those are intended to protect against harassment by the employer, and repeated contact attempts might get you into that area. It could be argued that you are trying to pressure an employee.

In addition, in many countries, working is explicitly prohibited during sick leave. Answering even one work e-mail is a work activity. You might get your employee into trouble (with the health insurance that pays for everything, for example). Granted, it is unlikely that this is ever found out, but that's not a good reason.

The short is that an employee on sick leave is unavailable. Instead of contacting her, you need to explore other options:

  • Can the information be unavailable until she is back? If so, just wait.
  • Is the data available in some other way? If it is stored on a work. Computer, and an IT admin can access it, check with legal regarding the restrictions on doing so.
  • Can the data be reconstructed from somewhere (e.g. a new database dump)?
  • Why is vital data not available to at least two people? Revise your policies.
  • 1
    Depending on your country and applicable legislation -> Please add to your answer to which country yours is applicable (though I'm thinking the US, to "assume" makes an ASS out of U and ME ;) ) - What you've written might apply to where you are, but not where I am (The Netherlands). +1 though :) – rkeet Feb 13 at 13:19
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    @rkeet I think it is a risky move in the Netherlands. Contacting a sick worker might cause psychological distress, and this is forbidden by the Arbowet and the Wet Arbeid en Zorg. Netherlands have a tight legislation on sick leave and the acceptable behaviours. Just the fact that it gives up to 104 weeks of paid leave is a good measure of how much it protects the workers (that this poster considers a good thing). – Mindwin Feb 13 at 16:30
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    @rkeet - I'm in Germany where while not explicitly forbidden it might land you in trouble. Most of Europe, probably. In the US - I wouldn't be surprised at all if it had no such protection laws. – Tom Feb 13 at 20:19
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    A lot of countries do, but mind that in The Netherlands an employer can demand (after 2 days) that an employee goes to see a docter appointed by the company. This is something that gives a contact moment and could (not saying should) be used to ask about suddenly unavailable data, such as OP's situation. (Though I'm of the opinion OP's out of luck, such info should never become unavailable, even for the night). Unsure how specific the law is, but pretty sure it ain't followed up upon very often. Hard to prove harassment if contact is along lines of "How are you" once/twice a week. – rkeet Feb 13 at 20:51
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    @rkeet If the employee is really badly off, how is the employee supposed to go see a given doctor? Two days after my heart attack, I was in no position to go anywhere. – David Thornley Feb 13 at 22:00
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You have not been ghosted, you have an employee on sick leave.

There are many reasons why a sick person might not be responding immediately and hassling her like an overly-jealous boyfriend will not do you any favours and may do a lot of harm.

The fact that you didn't think to store crucial data in a place accessible to the organisation is your screw-up but there might be ways to retrieve it yourself. How did she come across the data? If it was emailed, it might be somewhere on your Exchange server. If it was a share or URL, see if you can find the link in emails sent to her work address (or internet history, if your organisation keeps tabs on those).

Bear in mind this may not be possible or insanely difficult to do in a larger organisation. If she is the author, you're SOL until she gets back or is well enough to send it. As such, it might be a good time to familiarise yourself with the Bus Factor and revise your policies.

  • The asker never said sick leave. That was an intrusive edit made to the post. Asker originally stated that the coworker was not on leave. – The Great Duck Feb 16 at 18:13
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    @TheGreatDuck The original edit still describes a person who has been sick and hasn't been at work. It is not unreasonable for some illnesses to take more than a week to heal to a point where the person can be productive. Obviously there are details that OP has (and should) leave out, but it really doesn't take much to put two and two together. – 520 Feb 16 at 19:04
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    "Nothing states she was not at work." Ummm...How about that, as OP has stated, she has been completely uncontactable through normal means? That probably also rules out calling the office the employee works at if they are in different buildings. – 520 Feb 16 at 19:16
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    Fair enough. I for one, would just prefer to see the OP actually confirm this, because it isn't clear whether the OP actually knows whether they are away from work and therefore it might be reasonable to cover both cases (as can it really hurt to tell someone how to deal with an unresponsive coworker who is at work?). I'm just giving helpful advice. Feel free to ignore. :-) +1 on the nice answer assuming sick time btw – The Great Duck Feb 16 at 19:18
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    @TheGreatDuck “I for one, would just prefer to see the OP actually confirm this…” Confirm what? The employee is talking about someone who is clearly physically unreachable. Sure, there might be a case of someone being a remote contact or the original poster being the one working remotely, but that is really an edge case at best. The assumption I have—and I will happily be on—is they all work physically in person at the same office and this “sick” time prevents her from physically being in the office, thus mentions of SMS and phone calls. This is not deep detective work. – JakeGould Feb 16 at 23:02
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What to do when an employee on sick leave has important data and isn't responding?

You take the delay to work with your management to develop policies that eliminate any single-person bottlenecks in your organization.

There is no reason important company data should be accessible through only one person.

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    In short, "Your Bus Number is One. Fix it." – EvilSnack Feb 12 at 14:10
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    @JoeStrazzere in the short term, they're pretty much SOL unless there's some other way to access the data. That's basically what having a bus factor of 1 means – Leliel Feb 12 at 17:27
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    @EvilSnack - Mmm, not quite. Their bus factor was one. Now it's not nearly that high. – Don Branson Feb 12 at 18:22
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    @JoeStrazzere like what? They already failed to call back in the expected time.. at this point, unless there's some other way to access the data without the employee's help, they are SOL – Leliel Feb 12 at 21:21
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    @Evorlor: An organization's Bus Number is the number of people who know a critical piece of information or who are able to do a critical task. If they are all lost, the organization will be unable to perform a key task. The term is named after one of the many conjectured ways a person could suddenly be lost to the organization. ("What if Susan is hit by a bus on the way in to work?") – EvilSnack Feb 16 at 13:11
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She holds some very important data to the team and I have no idea how to get them back. Should I keep calling her? Try a different number? Or something else?

The correct answer depends on the labor laws in your locale, the importance of this critical data, and what you have tried so far.

In some locales, you cannot expect a sick employee to do any work at all - not even talking with you. Check to see if that sort of work rule exists in your locale.

Since she indicated she would get back to you, it's reasonable to assume that she is amenable to helping you, but just hasn't done so yet. She contacted you via some medium - phone, text, email - using that same medium just explain what you need from her and ask her what would be the best way to get the data.

If you still get no response, talk to her boss. Ask if there is someone else who can provide the data you need.

If she has been out sick for a week and continues to be out going forward, her boss should probably work with HR to consider whatever short-term disability process applies in your locale and company.

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    indeed, here the moment a person on sick leave does any work (and answering work related phone calls or emails could well be considered such) they're deemed back on the job and no longer on sick leave, thus if she did she'd now be away from her job without permission and thus could be fired for that... And yes, I've had a colleague fall into that trap when an employer wanted to get rid of him, caused him to get a burnout, and then bombarded him with work related emails and phone calls while he was on medical leave. – jwenting Feb 13 at 6:29
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    it couldn't happen in the Netherlands either. By law the employer has to employ an agency to check on the employee and "help reintegration into the work process" after some weeks (and most employers will call or have that agency call) regularly to ask how you're doing. A good employer cares about their employees' health after all, especially if you're sick. But they'd not try to shove work on you. – jwenting Feb 13 at 11:09
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    @JoeStrazzere what? You don't know what the nature of her illness is. Have you seen severe brain cancer (intentionally making it extreme)? Cause I did. One they the person wakes up and has problem with motion. In a couple of days verbal contact is very limited. In a month I had to attend to a funeral. And that's not the only illness which impacts your ability to do even trivial tasks. It's so easy to judge someone not knowing their situation. And fire him/her because you can't reach them by phone during sick leave. If that is really the standard in US then US law is sick. – ElmoVanKielmo Feb 15 at 11:09
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    @JoeStrazzere that's exactly what I mean. We don't know. And it was you who suggested that the best solution in US is to fire that person. BTW. I don't know how on Earth I wrote "One they" instead of "One day" in my first comment. Maybe I'm not a native speaker but it's still embarrassing and I can't edit that comment anymore :) – ElmoVanKielmo Feb 15 at 22:21
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    @user87779 you're missing the comment from Joe, which he deleted already ;) – ElmoVanKielmo Feb 18 at 6:25
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All legal & labour laws aside, tell her why you are calling.

Should you be texting me saying "call back, is critical!", you would get no attention.

"Please call back because of info X and Y is needed asap for deadline of project K" would get at least a glance to the phone and I may be able to give you a one sentence answer about how to find all the info you need.

Providing clear concise information about your need shows to the recipient that you value their time, cutting all the steps needed to get to the point, allowing for a quick assessemet of the request.

I find the above valid as a general advice, more so if your counterpart is on sick leave and may be dealing with unpleasant personal issues.

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    If a one-sentence text message is all that's needed, the OP should be able to get the data without pestering the sick employee. – David Thornley Feb 12 at 22:02
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    Any question that can't be answered by a single SMS deserves to go unanswered - and that can't be asking for a password. – Sean Houlihane Feb 13 at 9:55
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    @DavidThornley that's why a meaningful message is mandatory. providing clear concise information about your need shows to the recipient that you value their time, cutting all the steps needed to get to the point, allowing for a quick assessemet of the request. I find the above valid as a general advice, more so if your counterpart is on sick leave and may be dealing with unpleasant personal issues. the one sentence answer may very well be "no idea, sorry" and you'll waste no time waiting for a useless callback... – Paolo Feb 13 at 21:28
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The sick person got the important information in some way. What is the cost to have some other person get the important information again without help from the sick person? This cost can be money or time or some other resource.

You played poker by having only one person with this important information and fate called your bluff. Pay the price, move on, do better next time.

You could ask the employee via SMS that you need exactly the important information XY and if they see a way to give it to you or if it is better to start for with another employee from scratch. This will show the sick person how important the information is, but also that they are not pressured into giving the information if they are just not able to.

In one of the companies I worked there was a huge wiki where really all information of every project went. Something was missing and you found the person who had it? You let them write it down or wrote it down yourself, but the next time someone needed the information, he was able to search for and find it. I think a wiki is more powerful than a bunch of files on a shared drive, because searching for stuff is a lot faster.

If the important information is a password or login information, make sure you have a company wide password manager, that your IT staff knows how to access emails, for example when you click on a forgotten password link. The email used to access other services should also be documented in the wiki and/or password mananger, and so on.

Create an enviroment where no data is stored in the heads of people but everything on real storage media, accessible by all, or at least with access grantable to everyone by your IT staff.

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    No semi-competent organization would need any employee's password at any time. – David Thornley Feb 13 at 22:04
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    and no even remotely aware employee would share their password at any time. If my company reset my password then do something illegal in my name, I can subpoena the domain controller records and prove that my password was reset by an admin. If I give my password out, I'm screwed. – JeffUK Feb 17 at 20:56
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    While you shouldn't share user passwords, lest accountability go out of the window, there are occasions where password managers make sense. For instance, it's sometimes necessary to share credentials used by applications to access APIs, particularly third party ones where you may only get a single organization wide account. A company I once worked at also kept a spare admin account in an envelope inside a locked safe to cover disaster scenarios. – Matthew Barber Feb 18 at 0:15
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Aside from the described physiological and legal reasons, at least in the US, there are further, significant financial reasons for your company not to allow to contact sick employees - most insurances that cover such 'STL' or 'STD' (Short Term Leave or Disability) will require that strictly no work is done by the covered sick employee, and that excludes even a single bit answer about work.

The reason is that if the employee can answer questions, he is not disabled from work, and the company gets value and therefore should pay the salary. If this would be allowed (or even only tolerated), companies could simply move all their developers on STD, pay no salaries (the insurance would do that), and have them continue working. Be assured some would try that.

If the STD insurance of your employee catches you discussing work-related topics during 'sickness', they can sue your company for defrauding them. That would get quite expensive, and your company would quickly run out of alternate insurance companies.

[we are even required to disable remote access for all sick employees, on the day insurance starts paying. What a pain]

  • @JoeStrazzere that is also country or even company specific; ours (US) kicks in on day 5. – Aganju Feb 13 at 23:24
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I don't agree at all with the general consensus among the answers above. Your expectation that your sick colleague should respond to phone calls and e-mails are perfectly normal. The fact that someone can't work efficiently for eight hours doesn't mean that one can't work at all.

Ask yourself if this person had small kids, would (s)he need to board out them because (s)he would be unable to take care of them? Of course, that might happen and if that is the case you probably can't expect this person to answer e-mails but in 99 cases out of 100 someone who is on sick leave is still be able to take care of their children, and if they can take care of children they can answers some e-mails or phone calls. Simple as that.

Finally a comment on the criticism you received for "single-point-of-failure". Yes of course one should avoid that but what if this important information was generated the afternoon before the morning when this person called in sick? Maybe it was part of this person's task to write a protocol after an important meeting with the explicit purpose to avoid single-point-of-failures but (s)he failed to fulfil that duty. Should they hire two secretaries for each such meeting? That is completely unreasonable when the alternative solution is that the sick person just answers her/his phone.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Feb 17 at 20:41

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