Companies & Industries

The Issue: Using Sick Time for Interviews


A difficult choice about using time off strains an employee's conscience and leads him to fake being sick

If there's a system-wide failure or a VIP has a crashed computer, companies need to know their info-tech professionals can always be reached. The demand has only grown more intense as workers increasingly rely on technology, inside the office and out, to do their jobs, and as the tech go-to worker rises in rank. So where does time for job-hunting fit in?

In this case scenario, we visit a senior IT director at an insurance corporation. Although he has a great relationship with superiors and subordinates alike, he wants a new job (BusinessWeek.com, 10/16/07). The top brass consistently skimps on the funds needed to upgrade the company's technology to the state of the art, and he fears he will get stale in his present position. Plus, he's moving out of the city and buying a house in the suburbs. The commute would be an hour-and-a-half each way. He owes it to himself to move on.

Sticking Points

But what does he owe his employer? Despite stinting on some portions of the budget, the company has been generous with his bonuses and raises. Likewise, his co-workers are grateful. "I bet you take your BlackBerry in the shower," one colleague told him. "We can always find you when we need you."

In addition to the pangs of guilt about leaving those who appreciate him, he feels bad about taking time off to go on interviews. Are his misgivings justified?

"As long as you're job-hunting on your own dime—on a vacation or personal day—there's no ethical question," says Ethics at Work President Bruce Weinstein (who is known as the Ethics Guy® and writes the Ask the Ethics Guy! column for BusinessWeek.com).

Time Crunch

But here's the crux of the dilemma: It's only June and our executive has already used most of his paid time off for the year. With his mother's 90th birthday celebration the following month in Phoenix, a five-hour flight away, he would like to use his six remaining vacation and personal days for an extended visit.

Interviews could easily eat up all his time off. "It tends to be the case that the higher the level, the more interviews you'll have," points out Sandra Crowe, president of Pivotal Point Training & Consulting in Rockville, Md. "If you're in the managerial level in the private sector, you could be looking for a year to get the right fit and expect to have multiple interviews at the same place."

With little time to waste—our IT director wants to start his job search before closing on his new house—he could schedule as many interviews as possible for early breakfasts and late dinners outside of work hours. But that would solve only part of the problem.

"To interview with senior executives, you can usually arrange for a mealtime," says Pearl Meyer, senior managing director at Steven Hall & Partners, an executive compensation consulting firm in New York. "But you generally can't do that with an executive recruiter or someone in a human resources office. They will usually want to see you during work hours." And lunch meetings are out. It would take two or more hours just to travel to and from most of the interviews.

Playing the Sick Card

When his first interview comes up—with the human resources department at a corporation 50 miles from his office—our executive can't stomach the thought of using his little remaining vacation or personal time. The morning of the interview, he calls his supervisor and says he's not feeling well, that he suspects it's bronchitis, and he'll need to use a sick day to see a doctor.

His boss is understanding, of course. The man rarely calls in sick, so there must be a good reason for it now. But did our executive do the right thing?

When an IT executive used a medical excuse to sneak off to a job interview, he erred in more ways than one

Is it really unethical for a usually faultless and diligent information technology senior director—or any employee, for that matter—to use one measly sick day—fabricating the need to see a doctor for bronchitis—to go on a job interview? After all, his rationale for conserving personal and vacation days is that he wants to use them to attend an extended celebration of his mother's 90th birthday.

Just how seriously he went wrong depends on who you talk to, but he definitely did go astray ethically, according to experts. Let's start with the smallest error, which actually has more to do with a lack of savvy than a shortfall in ethics: claiming to have bronchitis.

Personal vs. Sick Days

"Those who do choose to lie about time off should make an excuse people won't ask about later," says Pearl Meyer, senior managing director at Steven Hall & Partners, an executive compensation consulting firm in New York City. "If you say you're going to the doctor, they'll ask you how you're doing forever." Second, the ever-popular argument—"It's my time off, what's the difference how I use it?"—wouldn't cut it here.

"A lot of companies have PTO, a set amount of personal time off you can use for any reason," says Karen Russo, president of K. Russo Associates, a Greenwich (Conn.) executive search firm. Had our executive worked for such a company, he could have simply called in that morning to say: "Something has come up, and I need the day off."

But his employer does have an unlimited sick-day policy. This director receives a set number of personal days for such things as taking the car to get registered, and there's an honor system for medical needs. As long as you're legitimately ill or in pain, you can take off as much time as you need.

Purist's POV

So "in the ethical purist's point of view, if it's understood your sick days are for illness, it's wrong to use them for any other reason," says Bruce Barry, a professor of management and sociology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and author of Speechless: The Erosion of Free Expression in the American Workplace.

Bruce Weinstein, who writes the Ask the Ethics Guy! column for BusinessWeek.com, agrees. "Taking a sick day for a job interview is just as bad as using company time to nap or surf the Internet for fun," he says. "That's not what you're hired for. Sure, 99% of people may do it, but does that make it right? If 99% of people cheated on their taxes, would that make it right for you to do it, too?"

Co-Workers and White Lies

There's also the matter of fairness to co-workers, says Weinstein. Any computer-network system failure emergency our IT executive would normally handle, were he not taking a sick day, will fall into the hands of already harried colleagues. It also means lost productivity for other workers because the fix will take longer than it would were he on the job.

Finally, on a lighthearted note, even if the man decided for certain he wanted to lie to get time off, he could have changed his approach, according to Barry. "I'd do it the other way—take vacation days for your interviews and then call in sick for your mother's birthday," says Barry. "It seems more noble to lie for your family's sake."

What would you do if you needed time off for an interview? Do you think it's fair to use sick time to look for a job? And what can you ethically allow yourself if you have to find another job?

Reisner is an editor at BusinessWeek.com .

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