Policy vs Reality: Sick Restaurant Employees

Restaruant worker with stuffy nose

“I’m Kayla and I’ll (cough) be your (cough) server today.”

An Awkward Moment

I knew I needed to ask the question, and I was quick with it when the server returned to my table. “Do you have a cold?” She had a look on her face like she’d been caught red-handed in something as she paused before answering. “Why, uh, no, no, I just have …allergies.” Unfortunately her obvious stuffy nose, and very productive-sounding throat clearing moments earlier at the waitress station (which was in easy hearing range for me, even though she might have thought otherwise) told a very different story. I acknowledged her answer with a nod, and watched as she set my beverage down and made a rapid retreat deep into the kitchen. About two minutes later she came back to the table and was barely there when she reinforced her earlier answer, in the least scratchy voice she could muster. “Allergies, I have allergies, not a cold, no, just allergies,” before rushing away again quickly.

Indications and Realities

Of course it is possible that she was indeed suffering from allergies, and not a cold, but given both her symptoms and her reactions, I wasn’t exactly reassured. The establishment that I was dining at that morning already had a few weak spots evident in the area of food safety and sanitation, which only contributed to my ultimate feeling of unease.¬† I had noticed the manager off in a different section of the counter area, busy discussing someone’s break coverage, but not really circulating around. I also noticed that my server seemed to be steering clear of the manager as much as possible.

Getting Serious

Most chain restaurant establishments have a policy about not coming to work sick. Hotels, retail establishments, institutional food service, and other public-contact jobs usually include this policy as well. It’s typically documented somewhere in the new hire materials or the employee handbook. I’d expect that the restaurant that I was in that morning had a similar policy. The issue comes down to whether it is taken seriously or not. If you’d like your guests to have confidence in the sanitation of your establishment, consider the following points:

  • When new hires are trained, how is your “not working sick” policy explained and emphasized?
    Aside from your handbook or training materials, what sort of visible reminders such as job aids or posters are present?
  • Do managers make a point of spending some time with each crew member each shift? (Note that this serves a much broader purpose that just understanding if someone is healthy or not!)
  • How serious are you about your policy? Are you unwilling to compromise on it when staffing is tight for other reasons?

And perhaps most significantly, how complete and effective is your policy about calling in sick? It is not an easy balance to strike to set a policy that considers the importance of good attendance and holds people accountable for that, while at the same time conveying an understanding that it is expected that you will not come to work sick.

Your Attendance Policy

I recall years ago, at one facility I was managing, having an employee call in sick, pleading for some consideration for his eclipsing the allotted number of absences and lates. His plea: “Yes, I’ve called in sick a bunch of times already this quarter, but this time I’m really sick!”

Setting and enforcing an attendance policy can be an involved and tricky discussion, but one thing you can do today is to consider just how clear you are on one non-negotiable in any business with public contact: “We don’t want you to come to work when you are sick. It is important for our customers that everyone understands and acts on that.” Training is important, but noticing what’s going on, and offering reminders and guidance is even more important.