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 asks:

I oversee a close-knit team, and most people follow each other on social media.

I noticed that the last two times one of my employees called out sick, she posted photos to Instagram during the workday hours--"selfies" of herself looking all dolled up and ready to go out. The first time this happened, I let it slide and in good faith assumed that she was just reposting a photo that had been taken another day. Now that it has happened again and there is somewhat of a pattern, I want to address it with her.

Do you have any suggestions on how to approach this conversation? Or if I should approach it at all? I seem to be getting mixed opinions on this--some people say it's not my place to comment on her social-media activity. The way I see it, though, is that regardless of whether the photos were actually taken on the day she called out sick or not, it was poor judgment on her part because she is senior in this department and most of our junior employees (who step in to cover her work when she is out) have access to her social-media activity. I was alarmed when I saw the photos and I can only imagine that the junior employee who had to stay late to cover her work on those days had a similar reaction.

I know this poses a larger issue that it is not ideal for managers and employees to be social-media buddies.

Green responds:

I don't know exactly what the photos were, but it's important to remember that--like your initial instinct said--these could be photos from another day that she's just posting now. It's perfectly plausible that she's home resting in bed but posting photos that had been taken previously.

More importantly, you really, really don't want to be in the business of policing whether employees are really sufficiently sick on sick days. If someone's unplanned absences are causing problems, you should address that. But otherwise, you either trust your employee or not, and either she does good work or not. If you don't trust her or her work isn't good, then those are the problems to address, not what she's doing on sick days. So for starters, I'd be looking at those factors and letting your answers there guide the rest of this.

But it's true that perception matters. If junior co-workers have to cover for her and then see these photos and wonder the same things you've been wondering, there's a risk of it eroding their trust in and respect for her (as well as frustrating and demoralizing them). There's also a risk they'll get the wrong message about how they themselves should be behaving (for example, thinking it's OK to openly misuse sick leave, even if that's not what she's doing).

It wouldn't necessarily be out of line to talk to her about that element of it, as long as you don't sound like you're questioning her need for the sick day. You could say this: "I've noticed that a few times when you've been out sick recently, you've posted photos to social media that made it look like you were doing something else that day. I trust you. But you should be aware that junior employees who have to cover your work when you're out are also seeing these and may not have that perspective."

And yes, it does indeed raise a bigger issue about problems when managers and employees are social-media friends! There are lots of reasons it's a bad idea for your management team to be connected to their employees; it's worth revisiting your policies there.

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