Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader writes:

I work for a company that provides two weeks' vacation and two PTO [paid time off] days to employees to use as they see fit. Toward the end of the year, the manager of our department will alert each person who still has unscheduled time available and ask that they schedule it.

This company also provides 2.15 hours of sick time each pay period; that means people can accrue at least 55 hours of sick time over the year. That sick time will roll over at the end of the year if it is unused; I currently have 160 hours available. But out of 40 people, there are only 10 people who have more than 10 hours sick time built up by the end of the year.

Do I have an unrealistic picture of how often a normal healthy person/child gets sick in a year? Over the last three years, I have used sick time three times for my children (I am a single parent) and once due to an elderly mother in the hospital. When I review some other employees' (married parents) attendance, I see they use up all their accrued sick time due to a child's illness. (Of course, Facebook shows them at the park or taking a long weekend trip.) What can a company do to regain control of abused privileges from people who have a lack of work ethic?

Well, first I'd stop monitoring your co-workers' use of PTO, since that's not your job and, frankly, it's none of your business. I do understand why you're frustrated--it's frustrating any time you feel like you're pulling more weight than someone else is, especially if you're not being recognized for it. But sick leave is a little different because it's hard, if not impossible, to tell from the outside what's going on (particularly when you're not the person's manager, and thus presumably don't have all the details about the situation).

Plus, even in cases where you think it's clear abuse--like the Facebook examples you mentioned--you have no way of knowing for sure if what looks like abuse on the surface really is. Someone might take a sick day because they have a medical appointment, but that doesn't require them to stay in bed the rest of the day (or report the details of the time off to anyone).

The reality is, different people use different amounts of sick time and have different standards for what justifies using it. Some people will stay home with a cold because they know they won't be productive, feel awful and figure that's what sick leave is for, and don't want to infect other people; others will always come in to work unless they're projectile vomiting or covered in blood. Some people have chronic medical conditions they're dealing with or just get sick more often than other people. Some people have weekly or biweekly medical appointments--for anything from therapy to kidney dialysis. Some people have kids, parents, or others who they need to take sick time to care for. And while different people make different choices with all this stuff, it's reasonable for people to assume these things are all OK unless the company or their managers tells them otherwise.

What's more, some people figure that sick time is a benefit that's there for them to take and that it's appropriate to use it all up, just like they would with vacation time. I happen to disagree with that (personally, I think sick leave is a safety net that's intended to accumulate when feasible in case you're hit with something serious), but it's not an unreasonable viewpoint.

Now, that doesn't mean that people don't abuse sick leave--of course some people do--but unless you're their manager, you're asking for problems if you attempt to police it or judge it. And believe me, if the time you decide to say something ends up being the time you discover your co-worker has a painful and chronic illness that requires time off, you're going to feel horrible.

If someone is abusing company policy by calling in sick when they're aren't really sick, then the company should address that--by laying out clear guidelines for what sick time can be used for and how often, and by talking to people who seem to be abusing the system. But that's for them to handle themselves--you're best off staying out of it.

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to alison@askamanager.org.

Published on: Jul 11, 2016