Direct Report Seems to Be Overdoing it with Health Excuses? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I run a very lean team and one of my people is a hypochondriac. Every week there is a new reason he needs to go to the doctor. Any cold that comes through he gets, and it is worse for him than for anybody else. He gets the flu every year. It is always something with him—he is tired, he is on some new medication that makes him have brain fog—he always has a health excuse for why he is a little behind or doing a little less than the others. He uses all of his PTO for medical situations but there is never anything visibly wrong. He has never brought in a doctor’s note, although I have asked.

I am sick of it. I recently saw a team member roll her eyes in a meeting when he was looking the other way, so I know I am not alone. We are all bored with his excuses.

I feel bad and worry that I am being a judgmental jerk because I am hardy and rarely get sick. What if he really is sick all the time? What do you say?

Sick and Tired of Sick and Tired


Dear Sick and Tired,

I hear you. It is much harder to empathize with constant health challenges when you are gifted with glowing good health and strong stamina. You are only a jerk if you act on your opinions and are mean or cruel.

A rule of thumb you might consider is that you have to be able to trust your people and give them the benefit of the doubt—that is, until too much doubt creeps in. Then you have to talk about it. To talk about it, you must separate the two different issues: the constant health complaints are one thing, and the fact that he does not carry a full workload is another. One is simply irritating but the other is unacceptable. You have to address the unacceptable first, which is the classic hard conversation. State the facts as you see them and make a request for specific change.

Here is something I have tested with both myself and clients. It is a 7-step process for a conversation, taken from the book Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott. This approach is a good way to call out behaviors that aren’t working.

  1. Name the issue; e.g., “You aren’t carrying the same workload as everyone else on the team, and the issue of fairness needs to be addressed.”
  2. Select 2 or 3 specific examples of the behavior or situation you want to change.
  3. Describe your emotion about this issue (e.g., you are frustrated and are having trouble planning and assigning work tasks because you don’t know what you can expect of him).
  4. Clarify what is at stake—and be very clear about this. What is the problem exactly and what is the negative consequence of not addressing it?
  5. Identify your contribution to the problem. Is it possible you have allowed the bad behavior to go on too long? Be honest.
  6. Indicate your wish to resolve the issue, being specific about what resolved looks like to you. This is critical and will provide you both with a measure so that you will know if the fix is successful.
  7. Invite your employee to respond.

The thing I like most about this process is that it forces you to prepare for a conversation about one problem, and one problem only. Once the workload issue is addressed, you can embark on the one about the health complaining, which is a different kind of conversation. In that case, you are sharing an observation and making him aware that he is creating a reputation. You can leave to him what he decides to do about it, which will be his choice.

I once worked with a young man who was a little bit negative about everything. I shared with him that everyone on the team called him Eeyore. I thought he would get upset and try to change the perception, but instead he laughed and said, “Oh that is so perfect, I am totally Eeyore.” Your employee has a whole narrative going and he can decide to change it or not. It may be completely fine with him that people are rolling their eyes at him. Once you have helped him gain awareness, unless you plan to make a request for a change, your job is done.

Finally, there is an opportunity here for you to practice compassion. Next time you do feel under the weather, you might ask yourself what it would be like to feel that terrible all the time. Some people really do struggle with terrible health and you have to give them credit for carrying on under difficult circumstances.

And—the work needs to get done, so you are going to have to do whatever is needed to help him get the work done or change his schedule and workload to reflect what he can manage. To do that, you will probably have to HR involved, and a diagnosis and a doctor’s note, which nobody wants, but getting clarity will be key. Otherwise, resentment will build among the team and you will have a real problem on your hands.

Get clear. Deal with the work situation and raise awareness about the complaining. Continue to notice your own judgment and practice putting yourself in his shoes. Be persistent in getting clarity and kind all along the way.

I hope your own health continues to be excellent!

Love, Madeleine

About the author

Madeleine Blanchard Headshot 10-21-17

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

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