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An employee I have been working with 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, but 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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  • 147
    are you trying to contact her while she's in sick leave ? – GlorfSf Feb 12 at 8:22
  • 154
    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
  • 12
    This is a very fact-specific situation. How you would handle a situation like this depends on just how critical the information is, how time-sensitive the information is, the nature of the information, the person's role and responsibility in the organization, subtle clues in the responses you've gotten from them, the relationship you (and others) have with this employee, and so on. – David Schwartz Feb 12 at 16:16
  • 27
    I think these edits are the source of a large problem here. The original question did not indicate that the employee is still on sick leave, only that she was sick a week ago and promised to respond one day ago but did not. It sounds like the employee simply stopped coming to work and stopped responding to communication. That's a very different question than the new title indicates. – Chase Sandmann Feb 12 at 23:28
  • 13
    @ChaseSandmann yes this is how I read it as well. The edit was very destructive to the nuance of the question, and everybody seems to be answering a different question by now. – Tasos Papastylianou Feb 13 at 0:09

10 Answers 10

421

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.

  • 42
    While the argument you make is sensible I would be much less harsh on the improving processes side of things. The fact that some information/knowledge/abilities are actually concentrated in one person is often a calculated risk. If you've ever managed a small company (<100 people or so) you will quickly find out that you can't actually afford to have every employee redundant. The economics will just not support that. So sometimes the right answer/process is chalk it up to the risk side of the equation. People pretty rarely get so sick that they can't respond sending quick data. So that's ok. – DRF Feb 12 at 11:16
  • 23
    @DRF while that is a good general rule, the fact that OP is hounding a sick employee suggests this particular document might be rather important. – 520 Feb 12 at 11:31
  • 179
    @DRF While I agree on the "a calculated risk" part, taking such a calculated risk means you sometimes lose. That's the nature of risks. So this is the scenario where the company "lost". They should take it in stride and not make the sick employee "pay" for a risk the company took. – nvoigt Feb 12 at 11:39
  • 70
    I'd change the sentence "Because she will get sick again" to "Because someone with critical data on their heads will get sick again" - Let the poor sick worker get their due rest... (2) A mention to the bus factor would go well in there. (3) I'm pretty sure robots can get into a state where they are not productive and demand time to get back into action (virus, maintenance, etc). Heck, it seems they can even die these days. – Mindwin Feb 12 at 12:43
  • 56
    "Only robots do not [get sick]" But they do occasionally break or malfuntion. That's why critical automated systems always have backups - just like critical employees should. – Philipp Feb 12 at 14:08
198

The idea you don’t understand how “sick leave” 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 on sick leave. You should be grateful she was able to respond to you at all. Your impatience and apparent tone deafness to the idea she is on sick leave 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 on sick leave 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 her sick leave 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.

  • 23
    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 2 days ago
63

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 2 days ago
  • 5
    @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 2 days ago
  • 2
    @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 2 days ago
  • 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 2 days ago
  • 2
    @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 2 days ago
49

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.

35

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.

  • 23
    In short, "Your Bus Number is One. Fix it." – EvilSnack Feb 12 at 14:10
  • 2
    @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
  • 1
    @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
  • @JoeStrazzere I don't see anything productive that the OP can do, other than turning over every possible stone to find another copy. Further pushing the employee is going to very quickly burn what goodwill there is. – Leliel Feb 12 at 21:37
20

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.

  • 2
    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 2 days ago
  • @jwenting - yup. It's unfortunate the OP hasn't come back and indicated their locale. In the US, what you describe would never happen. An employee couldn't just disappear for an indefinite period of time by calling in sick one day, then never answering the phone, unless they wanted to get fired. – Joe Strazzere 2 days ago
  • 1
    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 2 days ago
  • @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 16 hours ago
  • @ElmoVanKielmo - wow, that got dark fast. We could imagine all sorts of wacky scenarios. Maybe the sick employee died. Maybe she was a foreign spy. Maybe she never really existed except in the imagination of the OP. Maybe... vampire apocalypse! Let's just agree that we don't know nearly enough of the details or locale to draw a conclusion. – Joe Strazzere 15 hours ago
12

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.

  • 1
    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
  • 2
    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 2 days ago
  • @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 2 days ago
8

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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  • 2
    No semi-competent organization would need any employee's password at any time. – David Thornley 2 days ago
0

Aside from the described physiological and legal reasons, at least in the US there are further, significant financial reasons for your company to not 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 insurence companies.

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

  • There is no evidence that the employee is on Short Term Disability (which usually kicks in only after 14 days of continuous absences). – Joe Strazzere 2 days ago
  • @JoeStrazzere that is also country or even company specific; ours (US) kicks in on day 5. – Aganju 2 days ago
  • 5 days is rather shorter than usual, but fair enough. Still Short Term Disability is a status an employee enters after a specific period of continuous absence. And as far as I know it is specific to the US. None of this is in evidence here. It's unfortunate, but the OP hasn't come back and provided any clarification at all. – Joe Strazzere 2 days ago
-4

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.

  • 2
    This is the only sane answer here. I don't buy it that it is illegal for the sick employee to make a call or answer an email. It definitely isn't in my country. There's a huge difference between harassing someone and a casual expectation that a sick person will inform the company what happened and by the way provide some data, especially if it's effortless. – ciamej 2 days ago
  • 4
    A sick person may well not be able to take care of children, but may have backup there. If my wife had taken seriously ill, I was capable of taking care of our son, for example. You're assuming, without any basis, that someone could function while sick, without knowing any details. BTW, if the information had been generated that recently, it can be re-created. – David Thornley 2 days ago
  • 5
    @ciamej In many countries, it is illegal, whether you buy that or not. I don't see a location tag. BTW, have you ever had a heart attack? I have. – David Thornley 2 days ago
  • 4
    @DavidThornley we're not talking about being hit by a bus, having an acute heart attack, or anything else that lands you unconcious in a hospital. 99% of sick leaves are much milder conditions. It's logical that if you get a serious condition you won't be able to call your company, but usually you can, and in fact the law requires you to do so in most jurisdictions. – ciamej 2 days ago
  • 2
    @ciamej , You can buy what you want; your legal department can tell you what the law is in your country, and if they authorize you to violate it. – Aganju 2 days ago

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