Chipotle made headlines with its policy requiring (or suggesting) that sick employees call a nurse to verify that they are actually sick and not just hungover.

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

It makes sense that a company with a history of e. Coli problems would want healthy people on staff, and they would want stomach shy customers to know that only healthy people will be serving them. But it sounds a bit like over-reach and that they don't trust their employees to know when they are genuinely sick.

In fact, my Inc. colleague, Jeff Haden, doesn't like the policy at all. Haden, who I agree with most of the time, writes:

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.

In theory, I agree with him 100 percent. But, in practice, I'm on team Chipotle. Why? Because restaurant work is hard and thankless, and they are often short-staffed and managed by inexperienced people. This is nothing specific against Chipotle--it happens in a lot of restaurants. 

Stories are all over about how managers demand that people work when they are sick

My place doesn't give a hoot either. I was hospitalized a while back because when I tried to call in I was told I'd be fired if I didn't come in and my sickness escalated so much that I ended up in a hospital bed for 2 weeks. Feel better friend.

And

If you're sick, be sure to not call in and show up to work and expose your coworkers and customers to your illness.

Because if you don't, you might get fired like I just did.

And

If you're sick, even contagiously sick, you still have to come in or you can be fired for missing your shift. Then if you cough, which you might do if you're sick, you get written up for improper food safety. So yeah, it's a no-win.

Restaurant managers have a reputation for being irrational when it comes to sickness. And it doesn't matter if Chipotle has policies and procedures that prohibit working while sick--other companies do as well. What matters is what the on-duty manager acts like and what the employee thinks will happen.

This way, there's a person outside the restaurant hierarchy that says yes or no to a call in. If the nurse says, "you can't work today," then a manager can't give a threat of "come in or your fired." Everything is documented. The manager isn't the one making the decision. 

As Haden points out, anyone can Google symptoms and lie to get the nurse's approval. The policy doesn't fix integrity problems. But, it's also an advantage for a Chipotle employee who isn't sure if his illness is serious or not. Having access to a nurse helpline is handy for everyone. And, employees don't have to pay a doctor for proof that they need time off.

In an ideal world, no restaurant manager would allow anyone even slightly ill to come work with food and people. In the real world, managers are saying no to requests for sick days. Chipotle's move helps ensure a safe environment for customers and employees. 

Published on: Dec 7, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.