By SARAH MORGAN
1. "I'm not really sick ..."
Jeremy Goldman would never have known his employee was lying when she called in sick had he not been checking Instagram, a social network where users post photos that anyone can see. It was the steady stream of photos and Foursquare check-ins from his worker that tipped off Goldman, then manager at a beauty products company, that this worker's "sick day" was spent attending a Yankees' game and visiting the Bronx Zoo. The worst part? Managing social media updates was this woman's job. Goldman, who is now launching a startup called iluminage didn't fire the employee, but they did have an awkward conversation the next day.
The number of U.S. workers taking fake sick days is on the rise, according to surveys by the Workforce Institute at Kronos, a company that helps businesses automatically track absenteeism and employee time use. From 2006 to 2010, the number of workers who said they had called in sick when they weren't rose by 18%. Last year, 52% of U.S. workers admitted to playing hooky. The top two ways workers spent their days off? Watching TV and staying in bed.
Ferris Buellerism tends to be most common in countries that don't legally require companies to give workers paid sick time. It seems that workers who know they have paid time off available are more likely to schedule time off in advance, while those who don't have that benefit are more likely to call in sick at the last minute to take care of a family member or attend to other personal matters, says Joyce Maroney, the director of the Workforce Institute at Kronos.
In China, for instance, where sick leave is not required, 71% of workers have faked sick , but only 18% of French workers have done so, even though French companies provide paid sick days, according to the Workforce Institute's research. Many employers in the U.S. do offer paid time off, "but companies don't have to provide it," Maroney says. "With smaller companies or employers with a lot of hourly workers it's much less common," she adds. "If the company doesn't have procedures around paid time off then they're probably going to have more people just not showing up when they don't feel like showing up," she says.
2. "... I'm just sick of working so hard."
Trips to the ball park and the zoo aside, the vast majority of American hooky players (62%) said they stayed home because they were stressed out and needed a day off, according to the Kronos survey. "A lot of people are working in places where there have been layoffs, especially in the last few years," says Maroney. "There's the same amount of work but fewer people to do it."
HR experts say the best way for employers to stop the spread of fake flu is to communicate clearly with their workers. Managers should make sure they understand each employee's workload and give each team member the training and support they need to be effective. If the office culture encourages people to speak up when they're feeling overwhelmed, workers are more likely to schedule breaks when they need them, Maroney says. "Most people come to work wanting to do a good job," she says. Treat them like adults who are working with you to figure out how to get the job done, and they'll respond accordingly, she says.
3. "I'm very busy ... updating my Facebook profile."
Most workers waste at least a little company time, judging by the 64% of people who admitted to visiting non-work-related websites every day in a new survey by Salary.com. But the good news for managers is that the number of slackers is down 10% since 2008. With millions of jobs lost during the recession, many workers have taken on extra responsibilities, "so they probably have less time to waste," says Aaron Gouveia, a spokesman for Salary.com.
Still, the majority of workers admit to goofing off. For most, it's a fairly minor problem -- 39% of workers said they spent an hour or less on personal browsing each week, and 29% said they spent up to two hours a week. But some are more seriously distracted: 21% of workers said they wasted up to 5 hours a week. The most likely time-wasters, according to Salary.com's survey, are highly educated men between the ages of 26 and 35. And yes, among lollygaggers, Facebook was the most popular online destination.
Workers gave a variety of reasons for slacking, but the most common theme is a lack of engagement: 35% of slackers say they're not challenged enough at work, and 23% say they waste time because they're bored. To avoid paying people for Facebook time, supervisors should set clear expectations around social media use in the workplace and regularly check in with workers to get feedback, Gouveia says. Workers who find themselves wasting a lot of time should go to a manager with some ideas of new responsibilities they could take on, he says. "You don't want to just walk into your boss's office and say, 'I'm bored,'" he says.
4. "I'm applying for other jobs as you read this."
Most employers figure disgruntled workers are looking elsewhere. But what they may not realize is that even people who say they're happy in their current jobs are often looking for greener pastures. In a separate Salary.com survey, 56% of workers said they planned to look for a new job sometime in 2012, and 31% of people who said they were happy where they were still said they had looked for another job in the past year. In fact, 46% of workers say they've spent time job-hunting while on the job.
In defense of these workers, the time-worn saying still rings true: The best time to look for a new job is when you have a job, says Caroline Ceniza-Levine, a career coach with SixFigureStart and a former corporate recruiter. What's more, people have little choice but to keep a job search secret, Ceniza-Levine says. She discourages employees from doing any job hunting tasks on company time. As a recruiter, she says, "if I see someone who's sent me something from their work email, that's a red flag to me." For the employers' part, managers need to understand that most workers will be keeping an eye out for new opportunities, says Salary.com's Gouveia. "But if someone is spending all their time job hunting while they're at work, that's definitely a problem that should be addressed," he says.
5. "My resume may be full of fibs."
Kevin Sheridan, a senior vice president at Avatar HR Solutions, found out the hard way how important it is to check and double-check resumes. One former part-time employee at his company was about to be promoted to a full-time position. During the process, the candidate's resume was flagged during a standard background check. It appeared the employee had never received the college degree she had included on her resume, Sheridan says. "Lo and behold, next we got a letter on the university's stationary confirming the graduation date," Sheridan says. Still, something didn't feel quite right. "We faxed the letter back to the university and asked them to verify it," Sheridan says. The University's response: "We haven't used that stationary in 20 years." The woman was fired soon after. What's worse, the lie that got her into so much trouble was probably unnecessary. "I think she would have been hired for that job with a lower degree," Sheridan says.
A majority of employers have found resume inaccuracies, including everything from false dates of previous employment, inflated past salaries and fictional job titles, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. Sheridan recommends checking references, then asking those references for additional people to talk to such as former co-workers and supervisors not listed on the applicant's resume. Then, during the interview, potential employers should ask specific questions about impressive resume claims. "The bottom line: the trust factor in any workplace is paramount. If you can't trust people up front, you don't want to hire them," Sheridan says.
6. "I'm starting my own business on the side."
In 2009, Ben Gran was working as a full-time technical writer for a large financial services company. In his spare time he started picking up freelance writing gigs through Elance, a website where freelancers can bid for projects. "I never talked to my boss about it," Gran says. But he did carefully follow his company's policy, which stated that employees did not have to ask permission to take outside work as long as it wasn't for a competitor. Gran also never did his outside assignments while he was on the job. Still, "over time the freelance work became more and more of a preoccupation. My mind just wasn't at work when I was at work." His performance suffered and his boss noticed, he says. Ultimately, he quit his day job and says he's now much happier as a full-time freelancer.
About a third of freelancers also work a full-time job, according to the most recent Freelance Talent Report from Elance. In a separate survey of entrepreneurs, 36% of respondents said they were starting a business while working at a full-time traditional job. Most workers don't ask permission because that's basically telling your boss that you've got other priorities, says career coach Ceniza-Levine. Would-be moonlighters should check the employee handbook and then be as discreet as possible, Ceniza-Levine adds. Never use company time or resources for your side gig and be sure to establish a name and brand identity for your new business that will make it clear it has no connection to your employer, she says. "Err on the side of being secret and careful," she says.
For managers, it's generally best to allow workers to do as they please with their free time, says Mitchell Weiss, a consultant and adjunct professor of finance at the University of Hartford who used to run a small business. "For rank-and-file employees, you can't expect they're going to dedicate their whole lives to you," Weiss says. However, managers should set clear expectations that any side projects won't present a conflict of interest and that workers need to be focused and productive while they're at their day jobs, Weiss says. That includes not coming to work too exhausted or unfocused to be productive, he says.
7. "My bad mood is costing you money."
People who come into work in a bad mood suffer a 10% decline in their productivity, according to research by Nancy Rothbard, an associate professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Say a worker is running five minutes late. Maybe something went wrong while he was getting the kids ready for school or maybe traffic was bad. When he walks in the door, the boss yells at him for being late. That can set the tone for the whole day, says Rothbard. That worker may never quite recover and fail to do his best work.
Employees generally aren't aware that their bad moods make them less productive, Rothbard notes. When an employee does walk in ticked off, managers should refrain from commenting because that will only reinforce, not disperse, the negative vibe, Rothbard says. As much as possible, managers should try not to be judgmental about a worker who's just walked in late or who appears overwhelmed by personal issues, she says. "Focus on seeing if there is a way the person's mood can be re-set," she says.
8. "I want you to be my shrink."
Back when he ran a small business lending companies money for equipment purchases, Mitchell Weiss says he saw a lot of personal and financial problems take their toll on workers' productivity. One customer service representative, a single mother with two kids who was working two jobs to make ends meet lost her apartment in a fire, Weiss says. Luckily, "she had a very supportive and nurturing manager who knew that this was taking place, and the employee felt comfortable talking about it," says Weiss. Modifying her hours helped this employee keep on top of her personal life as well as her workplace responsibilities, Weiss says.
Weiss, says his company's goal was always to work with employees as much as possible -- changing shifts so they could care for family members, or reducing responsibilities temporarily when someone was truly overwhelmed. The flexibility pays off. "It costs a lot of money and a lot of time and effort to bring an employee on board and train them and get them productive. I never wanted to lose an employee unless I felt that I really should," Weiss says.
The danger is some workers will try to take advantage of an empathetic boss. "I had an employee who absolutely played me," Weiss says. Knowing Weiss was about to give him a poor performance review, this man begged to postpone the meeting because, he said, his wife had just been diagnosed with cancer. Then he said he still wasn't ready for the meeting because when he'd gone home to console his wife, he'd found her in bed with the insurance guy. Next it was his daughter, who, according to the employee, was cutting her initials into her wrist with a razor blade. "I finally let him go," Weiss says. Years later, Weiss ran into this former employee, and he admitted that he'd invented all those tragedies: "I knew you were going to fire me," the man said, "I was just trying to hold on a little longer."
9. "I don't want to be your friend."
Managers may want to see themselves as just part of the team, but workers are always going to be conscious that they're talking to their boss and not their peer, experts say. Unfortunately for avid networkers that means "friending" your employees online is just going to make them uncomfortable. "One of the biggest challenges that people have with online social networking in the workplace is this question of whether you accept people at different levels of the hierarchy," Wharton's Rothbard says. Here's something to make the Michael Scotts of the world cringe: People talk about the dilemma of whether to accept a friend request from a boss in much the same way as they talk about getting a friend request from their mothers, Rothbard says. "Some people feel compelled to accept both of those people if they friend them, but there's a lot of discomfort around that," she says. With both Mom and the boss, people aren't only worried about having to restrict what they themselves say online, but what other people say too. Unfortunately, "you can't control that," Rothbard adds.
The boss who wants to be everybody's buddy is a common problem. What's more, it can create some uncomfortable situations for employees in real life as well as online, says Eric Peterson, the manager of diversity and inclusion at the Society for Human Resource Management. "A lot of times bosses don't realize that they're the boss," Peterson explains. A manager may think she's just chatting with coworkers, but those workers might actually be feeling pressure to fake interest in her interests or fake agreement with her views, he says. Say, for example, a manager has strong political views. "If you set the tone that Obama is great, or the worst president we've ever had, your employees who disagree with you are going to be silent about that," Peterson says. "Just remember that your words have an effect on your employees," Peterson says.
10. "Money doesn't matter. I just want you to be nice to me."
When asked what makes them happy with their jobs, workers ranked their relationships with their supervisors as more important to job satisfaction than their benefits or compensation, according to a 2011 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. Overall, 55% of workers said that relationship was very important to their job satisfaction, and 73% said it contributes to how engaged they are in the organization. Unfortunately, only 49% of workers said they were very satisfied with that key relationship.
Managers have a lot of control over how satisfied their employees are with their work, says Sheridan of Avatar HR Solutions. His firm's research shows that recognition, possibilities for career development and relationships with managers are the most important factors in worker engagement. A supervisor's communication style can make or break all three of those factors, Sheridan says. "Half the time when people are not feeling recognized, it's not about money or awards, it's about a simple thank-you," he says. "Managers are just not thanking people enough and showing people that they appreciate a job well done." Regularly talking with workers about their career goals and showing an interest in who they are as people outside of work will also go a long way toward making your team happy, Sheridan says. "There's a lot of truth to the old adage -- people don't leave companies, they leave managers," he says.