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General question: if you are very sick I think you have no choice but to call in sick even if it's your first week. How bad does this look to your new employer? Are there things you can do to avoid eroding their trust?

-- My specific context: I've started an executive position at a new company. When I signed, they were eager for me to get started right away but I asked for 6 weeks to wrap up with my old company and make sure I left them in a good place.

Now it's my first week and on day 1 I wake up with a fever and flu. I call in sick and it's looking like I will be sick all week at least. Because of an autoimmune condition I have, it can take me longer to recover from flu than the average person. Doctor says that I need to take days off to recuperate or it could turn into something worse. However I'm quite worried my new employer will lose patience with me and start questioning whether I'm serious or will flake out, and not sure what else I can do other than recover quickly and then be a model employee once I start.


Update after receiving all your input: I called my employer and offered to begin with some light work remotely. They recommended I not work, instead recover fully and start next week. So I will take them up on it. I will also offer to push my start date by a week and miss the pay as a sign of good faith, as suggested. Thank you all very much for the advice, I really appreciate it.

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    My post from yesterday that you're referring to was something I'd written up 2 months ago but decided not to post at the time, opting to discuss with friends and family instead. I decided to take the new job in question. However, still questioning the decision I made, I decided to post anyway to see what the objective readers of this forum thought. I saw the feedback and will try to edit that post to be more generic so that it could be relevant to others. Meantime, this was to be my 1st week on the new job and it's Thursday, I'm still sick, hence my post here. The advice has been helpful. – DannyT Aug 31 '17 at 12:56
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    A solution would be to push back your start date by a week. You'll lose the pay, but it goes someway to showing it is genuine and you're a serious employee. – Steve Smith Aug 31 '17 at 14:33
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    @JoeStrazzere Most flu sufferers DO need a week to recover. It's just most people who claim they have the flu actually just have a cold. – Muzer Aug 31 '17 at 14:41
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    @JoeStrazzere In some countries (Poland) you are not allowed by law to do any work when on sick leave. So I would be more careful when recommending doing work while on sick leave. – kukis Aug 31 '17 at 16:55
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    Does it help to move your official start date a week later? Is that even possible ? – Criggie Sep 1 '17 at 9:00
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How bad does this look to your new employer?

I don't really think this is a big deal at all.

Tell the truth, back up your sick claim with a doctor's note if possible and carry on. Make sure you actually talk to your manager ( as I am sure you sound sick ) as well as send an email.

If the employer doesn't respect your courtesy and common sense in calling sick and not infecting the office, you probably don't want to work there anyway.

One thing you could do, to borrow from Joe's comment on your question, is inquire as to the possibility of doing some light work from home.

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    +1 for getting a doctor's note, as well as asking to do other work. There's probably lots of training that you need to do as part of onboarding. – David K Aug 31 '17 at 12:26
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    We had a new employee who came in with the flu the first day of work, we sent her home immediately. Most reasonable employers don't want someone new (who isn't really going to be real productive at first anyway) who is obviously sick with something contagious to come in. Just make sure you actually talk to the boss, so he can hear how sick you are. If you are going to be out for a week though and not 1-2 days, I would definitely suggest a doctor's note. In fact when I talked to the boss, I would mention that I was headed to the doctor. – HLGEM Aug 31 '17 at 13:59
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    In the OP's situation, getting extra sleep may be more important than giving a good impression. Some light work may be OK, but don't let it get in the way of rest. – Patricia Shanahan Aug 31 '17 at 14:20
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    +1 for doctor note. Show them enough proof so they don't think that you are using sick as excuse for personal plans (like holidays,..) or for some other reason. – VarunAgw Aug 31 '17 at 18:47
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    +1 (see my answer) when I was IT manager I made it clear that it was better for everyone that the sick one stay home instead of contaminating the whole team, a few days off work is of little consequence in the grand scheme of things, compared to the whole team being on sick leave while a production server spills its guts... and the only one available to patch things up is the intern... shudder and cold sweat... – peufeu Sep 1 '17 at 20:24
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How bad does this look to your new employer? Are there things you can do to avoid eroding their trust?

It will only look bad if you're cavalier about it. Since you're so new your manager and colleagues won't have many data points on you or your behaviour and you want to avoid making this one of them. So what you should do is:

  • be explicit that you regret the timing of having to call in sick before or right after you start
  • communicate this well
  • rest up
  • Make it a point to be at your best and most professional once you return or come to work.
  • Look after yourself in the next few weeks and months to minimise the odds of having to call out sick again, to the extent possible.

Or as Alison Green from Ask A Manager put it:

It’s certainly not ideal to be out sick your first week on the job, but sometimes this stuff happens — people get strep or break a leg or have horrible food poisoning. Even only halfway decent managers understand that this can happen, and that you can’t control the timing. The keys are to say that you’re mortified that it’s happening during your first week so that they know you’re not being cavalier about it, to make it clear it’s something like strep and not just the sniffles, and to make a real point of demonstrating your work ethic once you’re back. That last part is because the worry isn’t “how outrageous, she had strep her first week” but rather “is she someone who’s going to call out all the time?” since they don’t know you yet. You just need to counteract those worries once you’re back.

The only thing I disagree about is how explicit you need to be about your specific reason for calling in sick. It's really no one's business and in some cases it could do more harm than good. If for instance you occasionally suffer from migraine attacks that cripple you for a few days there's a risk of that not being taken seriously. But if you're comfortable sharing the reason for your absence it's a good idea to do so because like all people managers do have a nosy streak and any illness that's objectively "serious" can help set people at ease about your work ethic.

  • I think the point of being explicit is to make it clear that is something that is serious enough to warrant staying home. "The sniffles" isn't generally considered "serious enough," especially if it's the only symptom (and often, once it becomes evident that it's an infection and not allergies or something, the reasonable companies will encourage you stay home, even if it's a work from home arrangement), but things like fever, migraine, etc. are understood. You don't have to go into gory detail, just enough that indicates the severity. – Shauna Sep 1 '17 at 14:17
  • @Shauna I'm aware, which is why it's a good idea if it's a "safe" illness to disclose at work. But anything long-term or controversial, migraine attacks being both, is something I would avoid bringing up this early into the job. – Lilienthal Sep 2 '17 at 12:48
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Just chiming in from the other side...

So, I hired this guy. He was supposed to show up Monday 8AM.

Monday 8:10AM my phone rings, and out the earpiece comes a death rattle, then a sniffle. Then he explains, but it was pretty obvious anyway.

First thought: if this guy steps into the offices and sneezes loads of viruses into the air, everyone's gonna catch it and we're gonna lose two weeks of productivity. Also I didn't wanna catch it. So I told him to get better, see you next week.

I also made a mental note that this guy probably set his alarm clock to wake him up and call me from his bed while he would have been better sleeping it off. That denotes responsibility and wasn'l lost on me. When he got better and we got to work together, he turned out to be a very competent employee.

Being sick happens to anyone, but whether you contaminate others is up to you. Showing up to work with the flu will result in the company being worse off, due to most of the staff being turned into zombies for a week. If your manager talks you into working while sick, or worse implies that "or else", they are making a mistake, this is textbook bad management, and you should make a note that you don't really want to work with this manager. So if they fire you, good for you, you dodged a bullet.

Have a nice day, and get better.

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It looks bad, at least in the short term. I am a manager and owner, and if you called in sick within your first week it would certainly "count against you".

That said, it's very, very easy to counter.

  1. Talk to HR or your manager. Let them know. Even jobs that have 0 tolerance policy would probably make accommodations, if asked to. For example they may push your start date back. I worked with a company that had high turn over, as an example, and they had a policy; If you miss any day or are late within the first 90 days your fired on the spot and not allowed to work there again, ever. However they also had a policy that if someone got sick around starting time, they would just push back their start date to accommodate. That would include people starting and getting sick in the first 90 days. What ended up happening, was that people that called in "sick" got fired but legit sick people just had to retake the training. Some will say that is "too strict" but, hey it's their company. Personally I move back the start date so that people don't have to use their sick days before they even have them.

  2. Don't be late. Don't call at the last second. Call early, and be on time. If you call the night before, or go into the office (eww) 30 mins before your "shift" starts. This really mitigates the problem. The problem, as a manager sees it, is "I just hired this person, and already I don't know where they are?" Just cover that by handling the problem ahead of time.

  3. Provide proof. Even though I don't really require it, you wouldn't leve me much room to complain if you brought a doctors note. In fact my response would probably be more along the lines of "Please take what ever time you need, just take it at home and don't make others here sick." When someone comes in and says "I'm sick I won't be in today" and they look fine, sound fine, smell fine, and don't have a note. I may go "Ok see you later" but in my head I am going "WTF?!?! It's day 2!"

  4. After your better, be on your best behavior, never be late and never be absent again for a long time. I know that is tricky. But the like between "Jake is never here, he's always calling out sick." and "Jake is a good worker that has almost never missed a day." it extremely thin. And sure, you use records to help with raises and promotions, but it's still hard to get over that "He is never here" feeling once you have it.

So a good example:

  • You start on 9/1 but you got sick.
  • You call on 8/31 at 4pm
  • You say, Hey I know this is really bad, but I have strep, I am emailing you my doctors note. I won't be able to come in tomorrow, is there anything I can or need to do.
  • Then, after the issue is cleared up you are consistently on time and present. Maybe even said thanks for understanding.

I would actually write the whole thing off as a plus, and consider you a better employee. You acted professionally, and with concern for others.

a bad example:

  • You start on 9/1 but got sick
  • You email in after your shift is supposed to start on 9/2
  • You say that you don't feel good and won't be in today.
  • After the fact you miss a few days here and there, are late once or twice, nothing serious, but still.

I would probably not keep you on after the probation period. Just not with the risk.

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    >if you called in sick within your first week it would certainly "count against you". Wouldn't it be... better?... to assume it wasn't being done in bad faith, and they actually got sick, until you had reason to believe otherwise (like a pattern of behavior?) – Bwmat Sep 1 '17 at 5:34
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    Also that 90-day policy is utterly ridiculous (as are all zero-tolerance policies) – Bwmat Sep 1 '17 at 5:34
  • Well i'm not fond of that 90 day policy either, but like I said, their company, they can do what they want. As for "assume it wasn't done in bad faith" It's not about bad faith. It's about work ethic. Like I said it's really easy to counter. but it does need countering. – coteyr Sep 1 '17 at 10:28
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    My point is that it shouldn't need countering, because getting sick isn't about work ethic; you make it so by assuming the worst. – Bwmat Sep 1 '17 at 14:40
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    More like it's an "against" until something is done, and that something is as little as a call in. First bullet point, "let someone know" – coteyr Sep 1 '17 at 15:07
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I want to add a different perspective to answer the general case.

In an ideal world, employers would prioritize human beings over business. However, many times this is unfortunately not the case. Often, people feel pressured to go to work even when they are ill and this results in the spread of sickness. So where does this pressure to not take sick time come from? Subconsciously, they know they may be judged or penalized for taking unscheduled time off.

That being said, I think the effects of calling out sick early in your employment is highly dependent on the organization. There are some/many jobs that would probably not hesitate to fire you for calling out sick in the first 90 days. In your case it worked out nicely (as it should). But I write this answer so that others contemplating the same situation have additional context to make a decision on.

In my opinion, if you have something minor that can be managed with medications then it's probably best to show up and just explain to others that you are feeling a little under the weather. If they are a good organization they will probably tell you to take off and come back when you feel better.

Obviously, you had the flu and fever, and in that case you have no choice but to bite the bullet and take the time off regardless of the outcome. Just call in and speak to your manager and explain the situation. If they are smart, they will realize getting the rest of the team sick is worse than having you work when you are ill.

Some supporting anecdotes

Anecdote #1: I was once "written up" for going to the ER. And that was after years of service. Utterly, disgraceful. But this should illustrate how low some organizations are willing to stoop.

Anecdote #2: A very similar situation occurred on the first day of an important job for me. I caught a cold and I got zero sleep (literally) the day of my start day. I calculated the risk of calling out on my first day was too great and so I rolled up my sleeves, loaded up on meds, told everyone to not shake my hand, and started the job. That was a rough week, but things worked out well.

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