Imagine you wake up feeling terrible, and call in sick.

And then a nurse gets on the line to determine whether you're sick ... or maybe just hung over.

Hold that thought.

In 2015, two separate E. coli outbreaks were linked to Chipotle: In one outbreak, 55 people in 11 states were infected by the foodborne illness. In the second, five people from three states were infected. 

In 2017, a norovirus outbreak among Chipotle customers in Virginia was caused by store managers' failing to follow safety procedures, including one employee who worked while unwell.

Since then, Chipotle has put considerable effort into improving its food-safety practices.

"We have a very different food-safety culture than we did two years ago," says CEO Brian Niccol. "Nobody gets to the back of the restaurant without going through a wellness check." 

One of those initiatives involves having a nurse call employees who call in sick. 

"We have nurses on call, so that if you say, 'Hey, I've been sick,' you get the call into the nurse," Niccol says. "The nurse validates that it's not a hangover -- (that) you're really sick -- and then we pay for the day off to get healthy again."

On the surface, that sounds fine. Nearly everyone has called in sick at least once when they weren't actually sick. (I have, but if it helps, I was an hourly employee ineligible for sick pay.)

Paid sick days are a great benefit. Paying employees while they get healthy is great.

But having someone "validate" that you're sick and not hung over -- through a phone call, no less -- is a terrible idea:

  • The phone call displays an obvious lack of trust. 
  • The phone call can't truly verify an illness. Armed with a quick Google search, anyone can list the right symptoms: Fever, headache, occasional chills, a few aching joints ... boom. I'm "sick."
  • The phone call has nothing to do with what Chipotle claims is its primary intent: making sure employees are well enough to be at work, and therefore won't put customers, other employees, etc. at risk.

Think of it that way, and the whole "we'll pay a sick day if you really are sick" thing sounds more than a little insulting.

Which the company now obviously realizes: A spokesperson later said it was a voluntary service, not one enforced to catch out staff. "You don't have to call a nurse if you're taking a sick day."

Plus, "All employees who call off sick for any reason receive paid time off."

But if that's the case, why discuss the whole "hangover" issue? Offering to let me talk to a nurse when I'm sick? That's great.

Having the nurse determine if I'm hung over? Ick.

So it's possible Niccol misspoke. Maybe the process really is designed only to benefit employees. (But it does make you wonder where the "hangover" thing came from.) 

If I were a Chipotle employee, I wouldn't mind undergoing a quick "wellness" check when I arrive at work. That makes sense for a company that says it takes safety seriously. (I've been asked to take Breathalyzer tests before entering manufacturing areas; I understand the intent, and have never been insulted.)

But if someone needs to determine if I really am sick? I won't appreciate that.

At all.

Plus, it's a waste of time that should be spent elsewhere. Trying to validate whether an employee is really sick -- especially when the means you choose makes it nearly impossible -- is a waste of time and energy.

And it chips away at the sense of trust you hope to create.

If, as a leader, you want to be trusted, first you have to trust the people you lead.

Only then will they return the sentiment.