my boss keeps sending me urgent work to do even when I’m out sick

A reader writes:

I work for the finance department of a nonprofit. I’ve been there for a little over a year, and I’ve noticed that whenever I call/email in sick, I still receive multiple emails from my boss (on my work email) asking me to complete tasks as though I am in the office — things like making lunch reservations, printing off documents for him, fixing something on his computer, etc. I have to send him multiple messages for him to finally understand that I’m out sick.

He seems to get upset whenever I’m out of the office, and I’ve actually started going in when I’m sick or injured and should probably stay home. I’ve even gone in against medical advice when I was having severe back problems because I knew it would almost be worse if I stayed home.

I really, really need this job right now (I have some medical procedures coming up), and I’m worried that he’ll get upset enough to fire me even though I’m not in the red on my sick time, and I still have my projects completed on time. How do I get him to respect my sick time?

I wrote back and asked: “Why are you checking work email after alerting him that you’ll be out sick? Are you required to?”

The response:

I get complaints when I don’t. Or I get blamed if something doesn’t get taken care of in time, like lunch reservations for that same day. This is the same boss who forgot that I was out on vacation over the holidays and scolded me for not having an out of office message (which with our email system only gets sent out the first time you email someone who’s out), when in fact I did, he just forgot and thought I just wasn’t responding to him. After I explained it to him (and tested the message myself), I got no response from him.

As for whether or not we’re required to respond to emails when we’re sick, there’s nothing in the employee handbook about it (I’ve checked), and my boss has never explicitly told me that I need to. I think the problem is that he doesn’t use email effectively. He’s a bit of a luddite and I spend a lot of time helping him with computer stuff. Often I won’t see responses from emails for weeks, even after I’ve reminded him about the issue in person. I’ll also have to resend him stuff because he can’t find it. But, even when that happens he accuses me of having never sent it in the first place. So maybe my issue is more along the lines of how to communicate with someone who isn’t easy to communicate with.

Well, part of the problem is that you’re checking email on days when you’re out sick — and if you’re responding to those emails (and it sounds like you are), you’re training him to expect that from you.

Also, I think you’re interpreting his behavior as “you need to work even though you’re out sick today” when in reality there’s a good chance it means “I’ve forgotten that you’re out sick today, so I’m behaving normally.”

I’d do five things:

1. When you call in sick, say something like this: “I’m sick today and won’t be in. I’m going to be sleeping or resting all day and won’t be checking email.” (And I would do this in a phone call, since he doesn’t seem to reliably read his email. Leave it in a voicemail if you need to. And then you can follow it up with an email: “I left you a voicemail about this but want to be sure you see it: I’m out sick and won’t be checking email the remainder of the day, so if you need anything urgently, please talk to Jane.”)

2. Address the issue directly with him: “I’ve noticed that when I’m out sick, you’ll still send me emails with things you need done that day. Sometimes I’ve ended up checking email anyway and saw the messages and was able to take care of it, but that isn’t always the case, and I’ve realized that it makes me feel like I can never really take a sick day, which of course isn’t realistic. I want to make sure that you’re still going to get what you need when I’m out, so can we come up with a plan for those days? I’m thinking that I’ll ask Jane to be your contact for XYZ when I’m not here, and that things like ABC that don’t need to be done that day will wait until I’m back at work. Does that sound right to you?”

3. Assuming that there really is a Jane who can help cover for you when you’re out, then arrange that. Then starting letting her know when you’re going to be out sick too, and ask her to proactively stick her head into your boss’s office to remind him she’s covering for you today and to let her know if there’s anything he needs.

4. Then, do not check email while you’re out sick — and probably not while you’re on vacation either. You need to re-train him to realize that when you’re out, you’re actually out. Not in the loop, not working, not available.

5. See if you can change your out-of-office message settings so that it goes out every time someone emails you, not just the first time. This guy clearly needs help remembering, and it’ll save you some hassle.

But overall, I would address this as a “how can we ensure that Fergus remembers I’m out sick?” and not as “ack, I have a manager who refuses to let me take a sick day.” And even if there’s part of him that wishes you’d never take a sick day, addressing it as the former will help reinforce that that’s not realistic or reasonable.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 202 comments… read them below }

  1. The IT Manager*

    See if you can change your out-of-office message settings so that it goes out every time someone emails you, not just the first time.

    I don’t think this is possible; I have never seen this as an option. I think I’m glad because I mail groups and CC people even I know they are out of the office (OOO). I’d hate to spent a week when my staff is out gettings 100s of OOO messages; alhough, its not a terrible hardship to delete them.

    ** PS I think Alison’s framing the problem advice is great. I hope that’s what you need to do, and your boss is not a big jerk who expects to work from home while sick.

        1. My two cents...*

          some companies, like mine, will tailor outlook to suit their needs as it is connected to the main company mail server. for instance, they’ve since removed the ‘reply all’ button as a group policy. you can still ‘cntl+sft+r’ and bring up a reply-all message, but they were getting too many responses for group emails.

          also, our out-of-office apparently only sends messages to other coworkers. it won’t send the OOO message to those without company emails.

            1. NewishAnon*

              At last job my outlook had two separate options for internal and external emails because one wouldn’t necessarily want the same message to go out to both sets. As an admin I might refer an internal employee to another admin for support while I was out. But these other admins wouldn’t be able to assist people that I dealt with externally because our roles required very specific, but different, knowledge and had access to different company programs depending on what department we were supporting. There was enough overlap that we could assist with general adminsitrative functions for other departments, but we didnt know the details of each other’s projects to help external contacts.

          1. Elizabeth West*

            They must have it tailored to not send, because it totally will send outside the company. When I set up my OOO message (Outlook 2010; we haven’t gone over to 2013 yet), it has two tabs: send to internal (default) and one where you can toggle it to send outside the org. It has its own tabs so you can put in different messages for each.

          2. charisma*

            oh my goodness, I wish MOST companies (or at least the ones I’ve worked for) would remove “reply to all.” that would be almost workplace utopia, in my opinion.

      1. Steve*

        It does vary though. Our Exchange Server administrator has that turned off and end users are not able to override it. Depending on the version of outlook being used in our office it is either greyed out and unavailable or non-existent at all.

        1. K B*

          You should be able to setup a rule to send out an e-mail for that day instead. In fact, I just double checked. Select Apply rule on messages I receive, then select from people or public group, then select to have the server reply using a specific message.

        2. Bea W*

          To make it even more complicated, my Outlook has separate settings for internal vs external users. I have to set up my OOO twice.

          1. hermit crab*

            We have that too. I really appreciate being able to put more information in my internal note (like an alternate phone number in case of emergencies, or a series of “For X, contact Y”) compared to my external note.

        3. Beezus*

          I’m like Steve, it’s turned off by our Sys Admin. When I’m out for several days at a time, sometimes I log in specifically to turn my out of office message off and then back on, to trigger it to send an additional message reminding people who email me that I’m out of the office, even if they received one previously. I do this particularly if I’m out over a weekend – those days off tend to reset some people’s brains and they may forget that they received an OOO message from me on Thursday. I really like the idea of setting a rule to reply each time, though, that definitely will help for certain types of email I get!

    1. Person of Interest*

      If your Outlook settings are locked down, your IT department might be able to help you set up a rule that does a bounce email to your manager only, every time he sends you an email – so you can make it very targeted – “I am out today. Please see Jane for anything urgent.”

  2. Case of the Mondays*

    I think this is a bit of a “know your office” situation. You absolutely should not be getting assignments while out sick. However, being completely out of pocket when you aren’t actually unconscious is industry/office dependent. I can certainly sleep for a few hours and not check my email. However, I should be checking it a couple of times per day to help take care of something that would just take two seconds. As a recent example, a client came to pick up a check and my coworker was out sick. He was able to tell me where the check was and client was able to leave happy. Most things can wait a day but when you are in finance, sometimes things ground to a halt without you and two seconds of responding to something can keep things moving.

    I agree thought that in the beginning you might need an all or nothing approach to train your boss but if the no contact thing is unreasonable in your field you can say I’ll be checking my email between doctor’s appointments/naps but I won’t be able to take on any projects today, I can just answer quick questions.

    1. Colette*

      I’d be more sympathetic to the idea that in some jobs you have to be available if the examples were actually urgent and things the OP needed to take care of. Surely someone else (including the boss) could make a lunch reservation or print a document.

      1. fposte*

        That’s the thing that struck me. This is more about a boss who isn’t managing to change anything in his moment-to-moment expectations than job needs that bleed into time out. Hard to say if it’s absent-mindedness, complacency, or jerkishness.

      2. Katie the Fed*

        This is why I wonder if it’s really her job to do those things or if he’s supposed to do them himself.

          1. fposte*

            Wouldn’t a finance department have clerical/support staff, though?

            If she’s a market analyst, I agree this probably isn’t what the company overall thinks she should be spending time on.

    2. Allison*

      “I’ll be checking my email between doctor’s appointments/naps but I won’t be able to take on any projects today, I can just answer quick questions.”

      I like this response, it’s definitely good to specify what – if anything – you’ll be able to help with.

      1. HR Generalist*

        My outlook lets me make an Out of Office for internal and external members, so the one for my contacts says something like:
        “I will be out of the office until ____ with little access to my email.
        If you require my assistance, but it is not an emergency (i.e. recruitment request, inquiry, vacation balances, etc.) you will receive a response upon my return.
        If you an emergency (i.e. payroll considerations, immediate deadlines) which absolutely cannot wait until my return, please contact my manager at ____”

        The examples are very specific and they’re 90% of the things I deal with daily – I don’t trust coworkers to properly gauge what is an emergency and what is not, and I got tired of them emailing my manager with banal or non-urgent issues, as if my manager is going to draw up a job poster for them or calculate their vacation balance, ugh.

        1. Revanche*

          Seconded! When I had no backup, and was going to work 15% of the time when I was out, I set up hugely specific scenarios for things that I would get to during that 15% and things I wouldn’t and therefore they should reach Mr X or Ms Y.

    3. Rex*

      I agree, sometimes it’s just not realistic to be completely unreachable during an unplanned absence, unless it’s unavoidable (hospitalization, etc.) But I still think you may be enabling the boss a little. When he sends you the lunch reservations type of emails, forward to Jane, ccing him, with a quick note: “Jane, since I am out sick, can you take care of this?” (Make sure Jane knows you will be doing this.) Repeat as many times as needed.

    4. Turanga Leela*

      I give different responses depending on how sick I am. Sometimes I say, “I’ll be mostly sleeping, but I’ll check my email periodically.” Other days, I’ve said things like, “I’m totally out of commission today. Call me if there’s an emergency.” My boss has my home number, so if there’s a true work emergency, he can reach me.

      1. Personal Assistant*

        With employers like the one described in this article, asking him to call if there is an emergency may be asking for an entirely new kind of nightmare. It sounds like this guy either doesn’t care or really doesn’t get it. I imagine him calling at 11:00 am saying, “I need you to make lunch reservations.” And that’s if she’s lucky. This guy may even be worse and call at 11:50 wanting a reservation for noon.

    5. INTP*

      I like the wording in your last paragraph but I would suggest the op also specify no lunch reservations or similar. People who have never actually done those admin type tasks tend to think they’re much simpler than they actually are and don’t think about waiting on hold with the restaurant, waiting for lunch orders from people who don’t answer their emails, etc.

    6. Ed*

      I’ll be the first to admit this is easier said than done (and I break this rule myself all the time), but the key is having consistent office procedures. In your example, everyone must keep their checks in X file cabinet – no exceptions. This way when a client stops by, anyone with access to that file cabinet can get their check for them with no delay for the client. You can separate them into folders by employee so there’s not a giant stack of checks but there should be one central place to look when a client stops by. If you handle many checks throughout the day and this would be unreasonable, then create a uniform process for everyone to follow at their desk so checks are easily found. The hardest part is not allowing everyone to do things their own way just because they want to. These policies benefit everyone from the sick or vacationing employee to the clients (which ultimately benefits the company). But people are creatures of habit and will often resent these kind of changes (at least at first).

  3. Katie the Fed*

    I sometimes wonder how someone like this survives at life. The guy can’t print out his own documents or make lunch reservations when you’re out (or for that matter, remember you’re out)? Is this stuff really part of your job or are you helping him more than you should, and enabling his helplessness? He might be coming to you because everyone else tells him to figure it out on his own.

    This reminds me a little of military officers I’ve worked with. Many of them are very spoiled by spouses (usually wives) who make them coffee, pack their lunches, buy their clothes, plan their trips. When the wife is out of town they’re completely and utterly helpless. Buddy, you lead troops into war, can you seriously not pack your own lunch?

    1. Snarkus Aurelius*

      You’d be surprised. I knew an executive at a fortune 500 company who needed walking directions whenever he was traveling for business never mind the fact that these were the same cities he’d been traveling to for the past 30 years. As in exit office building, turn left, walk two blocks, Metro on your right.

      I understand that ceos and other big bosses don’t care about habits like that, but it would bother me if my own staff couldn’t book an airline ticket online without help.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        It’s often not that they can’t book an airline ticket without help — it’s that when you’re talking about busy execs, it can be a better use of time if someone else handles it.

        1. Sadsack*

          Also, some corporations, such as where I work, require you to have a profile set up on a corporate travel site and go through certain protocols before booking a trip. This is something the admin may have access to that the manager does not, or experience using that would take the manager an hour or more to figure out. He’d need to get another admin with the right access to do the reservation for him. It isn’t necessarily as simple as going to the United Airlines website and buying a plane ticket.

        2. Snarkus Aurelius*

          I had a boss who could do all of this on his own and sometimes he did but yes he had an assistant because he was so busy. It was the ones with learned helplessness that no one wanted to help.

          I find that the people who can take care of themselves are less likely to need help with the smaller things like flipping walking direction .

        3. Miss Betty*

          Having been support staff for many, many years in more than one industry, I’d have to say it’s actually that they just can’t. It’s willful ignorance so they won’t have to do anything that’s “beneath them”. (I know from reading your blog that you don’t agree and I’m not saying it to pick a fight – it’s just my observation and it’s a pretty constant observation over a long period of time.)

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            It might be willful ignorance too — but my point is that in many contexts, it does make sense to delegate that work to someone else. I’ve seen many admins be mildly (or more) resentful about their boss not doing stuff like this for themselves (and/or make sarcastic comments about it, etc.) and I think it’s really misplaced. It’s often good business practice for a manager to delegate this type of thing.

            1. Katie the Fed*

              Maybe OP can clear up whether or not this is actually part of her job responsibilities. If she’s actually the admin support for him, then I have no issue. But for some reason I got the impression this is tangential to her main job.

            2. NewishAnon*

              As an admin, I consider it my job to support my manager however they need me to, so that they can be most effective at their job. That’s how to be a valuable admin, make yourself indispensable and the people you support’s jobs easier. I don’t really get why this would be a problem. I get paid for my time no matter what I’m doing.

              That said, I have also held admin roles where my responsibilities were way more technical. But it was still my responsibility to make things easier for my manager. She really appreciated it when I taught her a time saving trick in outlook or took the initiative to figure something out that she mentioned in passing.

            3. Cassie*

              I was like that a bit when I first started working for my current boss – I gritted my teeth as he asked me to do the most simple stuff. Like when he would ask me to ask one of his students to come see him, I’d think to myself “why can’t you just pick up the phone and call the lab?” And those kinds of requests would irritate me every single day.

              I got over being resentful by adjusting my outlook a little and remembering that if he did all that stuff himself, I would be out of a job. Plus, I’m fairly good with the minutiae and details, and he is definitely not (unless it’s in his particular field of research).

              1. TootsNYC*

                Plus, making a bunch of phone calls to play tag with whoever is in the lab is a mental distraction. Heck, even one might be a mental distraction.

            4. Miss Betty*

              I agree with what you’re saying. I think, though, that sometimes the grumbling comes from instances in which it literally takes more time for the exec to explain what she wants than for the admin to do it. I see that frequently, where an attorney will have a short, but semi-complicated task, such as a scan or copy job. (I do mean short. Generally, I wouldn’t expect an attorney to do his own copying or scanning.) How is it better use of his time to literally take more time to explain what he wants and then have to wait for it than to do it himself? I also wondered about this when people were discussing last week admins who make more than execs. At some point, does it quit making sense for admins to do some of these simple tasks rather than an exec to do it herself, since the admin’s time is literally worth more?

      2. Sunrays*

        This guy sounds like my current boss. He is a scientist in a UK government department and very clever but not good at practical stuff. In my first week working for him I had to show him how to read the London tube map. That is fine if you don’t know London but he has lived there all his life – over 40 years. He also asked me which was the closest coffee bar to the office and he had worked in the building 9 years at the time. Still, he is a great manager.

    2. SJP*

      I thought this too, could be wrong but if it’s not your job, you could well be enabling him by actually doing these things. If you’re a PA or AA and that’s your job, then thats fair enough

    3. hayling*

      I hate to be stereotypical, but I worked with a guy once who was former military. His job involved a lot of driving to different sites, and he never planned ahead to bring his lunch!

      1. Chinook*

        “hate to be stereotypical, but I worked with a guy once who was former military. His job involved a lot of driving to different sites, and he never planned ahead to bring his lunch!”

        I think part of that is because it is learned behavour in the military. He probably spent his entire career with a mess hall somewhere close. As for buying clothes, DH still hasn’t had to buy/rent a suit jacket and tie since he graduated high school 10 years ago despite going to various formal and semi formal events – his clothing is supplied by his employers (this is also why he still only gets new jeans at Christmas from his mother – he doesn’t need them for everyday wear and she keeps buying them for him…then again, she also buys me clothes for Christmas too). The military is very good at training people to believe that stuff just appears out of nowhere because it does due to the hard work of the logisitics department. As for spouses supporting this misbelief – sometimes it is easier just to go with the flow rather than explain to them the millions of small details involved so they can do it themselves.

        That being said, I also have yet to meet a military man who couldn’t make a bed, iron a shirt or scrub a bathroom clean better than me (seargant majors have high standards!), so making DH lunch when I make mine is a small trade off.

        1. Connie-Lynne*

          This — I can make my own lunch and certainly in previous roles I was thoroughly able to do so.

          However, in the two main offices that I work out of, my company provides lunch brought in. When I travel to other offices, I often forget on my first day that I will have to either make a lunch, or else schedule 60-90 minutes in which to locate a restaurant, buy food, have it served, and return to the office. It’s not that I’m in capable of providing my own lunch, it’s just that it’s not something I have to remember to remember any more, so it goes into the “perennially solved, don’t worry about this thing any more” storage area in my brain.

          Even on vacation, I volunteer at a big arts festival for three weeks, and there’s a mess hall for volunteers, so it’s literally extremely rare that I have to remember that lunch is a thing with _actual logistics_.

    4. manybellsdown*

      I worked for a guy once who was a top real estate agent but would occasionally call me when I was home sick because he’d forgotten how to log into AOL. Some people’s skill sets just do not include technology.

      1. Katie the Fed*

        I really don’t buy it when people say things like this. I mean, I’m not doubting you, but I’m POSITIVE this guy could have figured it out if he’d wanted. People become helpless because other people let them get away with it. We’re not talking changing your own tire here – we’re talking basic, simple office functions. I refuse to believe that someone who is otherwise successful can’t do those things. The more likely explanation is they don’t want to.

          1. Bea W*

            Sometimes they don’t realize they can learn. They’ve got it all in their head that it’s too hard or something. It happens with technology but I’ve also encountered it with tasks like pumping gas. Most of our gas stations are self serve, and I am totally flummoxed by people who have never pumped their own gas and have been afraid to try because they think it must be hard or slightly dangerous.

            1. NoPantsFridays*

              haha, I’ve noticed this with the gas too, but not because of full serve (almost all gas stations are self serve here too). I’ve known couples where one partner is the “gas person” and is responsible for putting gas in both of their vehicles. Each time one car is low on gas, the “gas person” must drive that car that day so they can get gas. The “gas person” is usually the husband IME but I’ve known some wives who were the designated “gas person”. What I’ve found especially confusing (and worrying) is that often the non-“gas person” has absolutely no clue how to put gas in a car, as if they’ve literally never gotten gas on their own!

              1. Natalie*

                For some reason this just reminded me of my dad teaching me how to drive, which included bringing me to the gas station a bunch of times to teach me how to pump gas. It was really helpful – I’m a fairly anxious person so I probably would have been really scared to do it myself without practice.

              2. Freya*

                I had to do hand strengthening exercises to be able to fill my car with petrol – my hands are small enough that I generally only just get them around the handle thingy, and then you have to hold the trigger in at that size for however long it takes, and it’s quite a challenge for me.

                1. TootsNYC*

                  Posting this late, so I don’t know if you’ll see it–but on most gas pumps, there’s a little bitty lever that you can flip down that will hold the handle in position so the gas will flow; you don’t have to continue to hold it.

                  AND…most gas pumps will shut off when the fluid in the tank hits the nozzle, so you don’t need to worry about turning your head away while the pump is flowing and having the fluid overflow.

            2. nonegiven*

              OMG, there were two women, an older one and a younger one, trying to figure out how to put the credit card in the slot at the pump. After pointing out the little picture, they still did it wrong.
              There was another one in front of the post office who had apparently never seen a newspaper machine before.

        1. Lizabeth*

          There are people out there that can’t remember it and don’t get it in spite of being shown, instructions written down numerous times, over and over and over. I work with one.

          What I don’t get is why they get promoted??

          1. fposte*

            Because logging into AOL is not an important management task that your performance will be judged on.

        2. Connie-Lynne*

          I agree with you here … except I have to take issue with your analogy.

          How could someone be otherwise successful, own a car, and not be able to change their own tire other than through learned helplessness or willful ignorance?

            1. Connie-Lynne*

              Yes, good point.

              I was addressing it from a knowledge angle, but you’re absolutely correct about it taking certain physical abilities to change a tire.

              1. JayDee*

                I’ve never had to change a tire. I have a very general idea of what would be involved from when I took driver’s ed about 15 years ago. On a nice day, when I’m not in a hurry, I would probably enjoy the challenge of figuring out how to do it myself. But I can also totally see myself calling my husband or a friend begging for help under less favorable circumstances.

                1. Jen S. 2.0*

                  Likewise. I have had flat tires, but I’ve…called the roadside assistance service. That’s what I was taught to do when I get a flat tire.

                  I have seen tires changed, and I am sure I could figure it out if for some reason I had to (lift car, remove bolts, remove old tire, replace with new tire, tighten bolts), but thus far I’ve never had to figure it out.

              2. Elizabeth West*

                I have literally never had to change a tire myself. Someone always seems to show up and help me. Even the one time I tried, I couldn’t get the bolts off (damn pneumatic wrenches) and someone stopped and did it for me. Around Bumpkinville, I’ve had guys say, “Here, little lady, let me get that for you.” (Confession: though I mostly like to take care of things for myself, when it comes to tires and stuff, I TOTALLY ENJOY THAT.)

                I do know how to change a tire, so if I were stuck alone somewhere I wouldn’t need to have some serial killer do it. It might take me a while, but it would get done.

                1. Connie-Lynne*

                  Not gonna lie, I also totally enjoy when people offer to solve things that I am totally capable of doing but are just annoying to do.

                  And, yes, if their drive is chivalrous but their motive is being sweet-hearted and not ickily sexist, I am totally chuffed to accept their kindnesses. Even if it’s phrased in moderately neanderthal terms.

              3. C Average*

                One summer when I was in college in Idaho, a good friend and I attended a concert and then decided to go for coffee in a town some distance away. It seemed like an adventure. We were two young, dumb, underdressed-for-the-weather girls, and (since it was the early ’90s), we were without cell phones. We got a flat tire waaaaay out in the middle of nowhere and had to figure out how to change it by reading the manual with a flashlight by the side of the road. We felt very accomplished after we’d successfully swapped out the flat tire for the spare.

                Ah, youth.

              4. nonegiven*

                I know how to do it, but they put those lugs on with torque wrenches,now. I physically can’t do it anymore.

          1. fposte*

            I have a colleague who says the same thing about knowing Unix. The “How could people not know…” stuff is very idiocentric. The notion that I am absolutely obliged stay proficient in a skill that I’m highly unlikely, in contemporary America, to have to ever do myself seems to be pretty weird; I wouldn’t say it about making soap or slaughtering chickens or any number of things people could save time and money by doing on their own, either.

            I’m fine calling that willful ignorance if we can extend the same term to not knowing Unix or how to slaughter a chicken.

            1. Connie-Lynne*


              I think I’m in agreement with you but from the other side. I’m often unbelieving at the things about Unix that people don’t know, and while I can’t slaughter a chicken, I can butcher one, and it feels like that should be a basic skill people have, even if it’s not frequently exercised.

              Debate over specific examples aside, you’re absolutely correct about the “How could someone be a functional grownup and not know how to do [learnable but possibly unnecessary skill]” being strongly idiomatic. I will say that to me it only seems to be willful ignorance if someone uses the skill often and doesn’t learn it.

              I ended up doing a lot of tire-changing when I was pit crewing for a friend’s race car, so perhaps I overestimated most people’s familiarity with the process? Not gonna lie, if it happens and I don’t have my fancy, nice jack in the truck with me, or if it’s cold, I’m totally calling AAA.

              1. Elizabeth West*

                I can butcher a deer. And I know how to kill a chicken. And I can also start a fire without matches. :)

                I agree with you about the willful ignorance thing. If you should have the skill, you need to learn it. I know people who refuse to do anything but the bare minimum on the computer (or nothing) when they actually need to. I don’t like helping these people–I’m happy to teach them how, but I’m not going to do it for them. I equate it to teaching an ex’s four-year-old to wipe her own behind. No, it isn’t fun, but it’s something you need to do for yourself.

            2. C Average*

              I know there’s a lot of discussion about learning styles, but I’ve seen less discussion about learning philosophies. And that’s interesting to me.

              I have a colleague, a peer, who likes to learn just for the sake of learning. She’s always taking a class in something or teaching herself something. It’s generally something she doesn’t have an immediate need for; she’s just acquiring skills and information for possible future use.

              I find it next to impossible to gain and retain knowledge that I don’t need (except for fascinating trivia and good stories, which I absorb like a sponge). If there’s something I do need to learn, I’m absolutely dogged about getting the information, and it tends to stick.

              You could put me in just about any job, I think, and I’d learn to get good at it, picking up the skills as I became aware I needed them. But I have a really hard time getting skills and THEN figuring out what to do with them.

              1. Connie-Lynne*

                Oh! This is so me!

                I’m awesome at trivia and learning stuff for projects I want to do or problems I need to solve, but tell me “you’d need this skill in the future, it’ll [make you more marketable | or whatever]” and I’ll be all “OK! GONNA LEARN IT … hey, I worked 10 hours today and I want to see how that Lorelei Gilmore is getting on… also I have a very comfy bed and snuggly kitties … oh, dang, it’s Monday again already?”

                All of my early jobs were gotten on the strength of “Nope, I don’t know that but I bet I could learn it in a week.”

        3. Not So NewReader*

          I am laughing. I won’t tell the details because the boss in my story was a good boss and a professional I admired.
          But Bossman had a problem. We had to do task X at random times, it was not a regular task. Boss decided that he could not possibly learn that task. My nice boss became as stubborn as a mule, “NO. I cannot learn this. I will NOT succeed.”
          Oh, my. This was so uncharacteristic of my boss.
          As luck would have it one day we were working together and task X became necessary.
          “Come on, Boss, let’s do this together.”
          Every inch of the way he fought me with, “I can’t do this.”
          “Okay, then. Let’s move to step 2.”
          We did step 2, and the whole conversation went this way with me saying “okay, now we can do step x” and him saying NO.

          We got to the end and he said, “Wait. I did this. I get this. I CAN do this.”

          Yes, you can, Boss. I knew it all along.

          Time passed. We both ended laughing over the whole story. I would not do that to any boss, but he was a good boss and he was fully capable of doing the task. He really did need to know how to do the task because he had to train others to do it.

          People can really dig their heels in sometimes.

          1. Elizabeth West*

            I think you hit on something here; you SHOWED him how he could do it instead of just telling him. Actually seeing that it’s not that difficult can break down those “OMG it’s too hard” barriers in the brain.

            To use the four-year-old analogy again, I suggested the kid try a new food before she said she hated it. In most cases, she loved it! (Of course, that backfired on me when I had to try a spaghetti sandwich. UGH.)

          2. Connie-Lynne*

            Wow, well done you and eventually well done your boss.

            The big revelation I am having in my current role is how much more invested people become in their learning when you offer to walk them through it instead of just sending them the step-by-step instructions with super-awesome written-that-you-have-to-read commentary.

    5. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I don’t think it’s crazy for a busy executive to delegate small stuff like this to an assistant. Those little things can add up and keep you from focusing where you should be focusing. And if he’s just forgetting that she’s out a few hours after she told him, that’s not outrageous either — there just needs to be a better system for him remembering. (If, however, he’s continuing to email her because he wants her to keep working anyway, that’s obviously an issue. But I think approaching it as “let’s have a system so you don’t forget this” will solve that anyway.)

    6. NewishAnon*

      Haha, this reminds me of my dad. He’s an engineer and has well over 100 patents for leading technology products, but he can’t operate the washing machine.

      1. Jen S. 2.0*

        This reminds me of all of the stories I’ve heard about men who insisted that women make better admins / secretaries because their (the mens’) fingers are too big to type comfortably. Mind you, those same men discovered that they could type JUST FINE when internet porn came along.

        1. NewishAnon*

          Yeah, there are a lot of men like that. I have to say that my dad isn’t one of them though. He does his laundry on the exact same setting every time after some trial and error. But he has no idea what to do with all the other settings and if he accidentally ends up on one of them, he’s lost. He doesn’t expect anyone to do his laundry for him. He asks for help, listens to the instructions, and completes he task himself.

          My mom used to work for the same company as him, and my sister does now, both in non admin roles. My dad is always talking tech with them and is very supportive of their non admin roles. I also worked there for a bit as an admin and there was no disrespect there. technically he was in the group I supported but the woman I was covering for told me he never asked her for anything, and that was true.

        2. LD*

          And typing, when it first came into existence, was too hard for women. Operating those machines was men’s work!

      2. StPaulGal*

        It reminded me of my dad, too. He is an incredibly hard worker who us self-employed as a farmer as well as owning a couple of farm-related side businesses. We aren’t talking about throwing handfuls of grain to a dozen chickens here–he deals with the commodities futures market, does several million dollars in sales with his main side business, and interacts seamlessly with incredibly technologically advanced pieces of computerized machinery. And yet he cannot print anything that is sent to him via email. He has to have my mom come into his office, open the attachment for him, and hit print.

  4. fposte*

    OP, are you exempt or non-exempt? Are these paid sick days? I’m guessing you’re exempt, but some of the tasks might point the other way, and I wanted to make sure this wasn’t a situation where your boss was actually asking you to work unpaid.

    1. Ivy*

      Can you leave a reminder on his calendar? I have my assistant put reminders for the vacation of key people I work with, so I don’t have to remember when vacation starts or finishes. Of course you’ll have to train him to look at his calendar:-)

  5. C Average*

    If there is a Jane, I’d frame this as “I want to be sure Jane and I can cover for each other,” not “I want to make sure Jane can cover for me.” That way, you’re not singling yourself out as someone who calls out sick and needs coverage; you’re acknowledging that in workplaces people in general call out sick and need coverage, and it’s good to have a plan for communicating and keeping things moving when it happens.

    1. Amethyst*

      This is a very good idea, especially if the boss is the type of person to come in even while sick (and expects others to).

    2. Not So NewReader*

      If there is a Jane….

      OP, is there anyone to cover for you when you are out? Can someone help fill in?

  6. SusanM*

    I have the same Outlook system as Steve so a recipient gets only one email saying I’m out of the office. Adding to AAM’s suggestions, is it possible to have someone (“Jane”) post a notice in your work space saying that you are out sick? Presumably your boss will walk past that area and it will serve as a reminder.

  7. Patricia*

    And, a reminder. If you are not an exempt employee, and are required to return emails when out, you should be compensated for that time. I had the same issue with a manager several years ago. It was amazing how quickly she “remembered” once I started adding the time to my pay. People will do what you allow, until they realize it costs them something.

  8. SBL*

    I was sick with Bronchitis this week and could do some work…but i had on going work and not specific daily requests.
    So another thing is to say “I could do X and Y, but don’t feel up to A and B.

  9. aNoN*

    I had a boss exactly like this as an intern. He was well past retirement age, didn’t know how to use a computer, and refused learn how to. Mind you I was an intern but I got tons of emails sent to my personal email on my off days and was expected to work beyond the university/employer agreed 25hrs/week. He paid me under the table for extra hours and I did not know better. This man drove me nuts and I thought all employers were like this. I ran fast and found another job. OP, please look for another job that will also provide benefits to cover your medical procedure. I can assure you they exist. Your boss will drive you crazy. It is not worth your mental health.

  10. Development professional*

    I had a boss once who asked us to put calendar appointments on her calendar for any days that we would be out – vacation or sick. For a sick day, I would send the email explaining I was sick, etc. and then immediately send a calendar appointment with NAME – SICK as the subject. Same thing with vacation – once I had discussed the time off with her in person, I would follow that up with a calendar appointment for the time off. The time would be marked as “free” so it wouldn’t look like she was in meetings for the whole week I was on vacation, but it was a helpful reminder for her of who was in or out of the office from her team on that day. Now, if this boss is a total Luddite, he might not be able to get this from his outlook calendar any more than he can read email, but it’s worth a try. Especially if he has to press “accept” on the appointment, it might help reinforce the short term memory that you’re out that day.

    1. Judy*

      Whenever anyone sends me an email “Jane – Vacation Jan 28-30” I make it into a calendar “reminder” (5 minute meeting at 4am) on those days.

      Most of my managers have had a shared “out of the office” calendar, where everyone puts Vacation, training days, business trips (with contact info), and the managers put in when someone calls in sick. That way I can check to see about people on my team.

  11. Allison*

    This seems like a symptom of crappy management. Your boss can’t remember you’re not there, or chooses to ignore that communication and ask you to do menial tasks for him anyway – I get that having someone to handle that stuff for you can be a big help when you’re busy, but you have two options: 1) you learn to handle that stuff yourself when the person who usually does it is away, OR 2) have a second person in the office who can take over when that first person is out sick. No office should be so dependent on one person that everything falls apart when they’re out sick for one day.

    Also, if you’re using a sick day, you should probably specify that you are, in fact, taking a sick day. If all you say is “I’m out sick,” that could mean a number of things. It could mean you’ll be away from your laptop and won’t be answering e-mails at all, or it could mean you’ll be resting but checking in, or it could mean you’ll be actively working from home.

  12. AggrAV8ed Tech*

    Oof, my boss is like this. Doesn’t like when when I don’t immediately respond to emails on the weekends/vacation/etc. I get endlessly bitched out for it, him claiming that I need to be “accessible”. The last time this occurred (some issue occurred at work on the weekend while I was up on a ladder in a tree with a chainsaw), I basically had to subtly imply to him that sure, I’ll be accessible if I’m compensated for it. Otherwise, my time off is just that – MY time off. He backed off pretty quickly when the subject of compensation came into play. I give it another month or so before he starts to whine about it again.

  13. Meanie*

    This post made me curious how many times in a year is acceptable to call in sick? OP says she has worked there about a year and this is a constant problem, which leads me to believe she is constantly calling in. Maybe the boss is avoiding addressing the same day call ins by pretending she is at work. If OP has a medical issue (or is approved for intermittent FMLA for a medical condition) she may also want to tell him how often she anticipates calling in to work. If I were either her manager or co-worker, I would be as frustrated with not being able to count on her being present as she is with the emails.

    1. Mallorie, the recruiter*

      We had the same thought! And considering her mention of having procedures coming up, maybe she does have an ongoing medical situation and a preemptive conversation with the boss about “What to do when I am not here” could help alleviate some of these problems.

    2. Katie the Fed*

      I know we’ve talked about it before, but what’s an acceptble amount of time to call in sick? I really don’t care that much when people use sick leave (although I’m SUPER annoyed right now that I had an employee who came in with the flu because he was low on sick leave – we get plenty of sick leave – 13 days a year – I just don’t think he’s budgeted it well). I sent him home.

      1. GOG11*

        I am curious about this, too. We get 8 hours per month, essentially, it rolls over from year to year, and I’m not aware of a ceiling on it.

        I am extremely self-conscious of how much sick time I use. I have bad asthma that I’m struggling to get under control (partially due to allergens I’m exposed to at work) and the asthma + secondary conditions resulting from trying to manage the asthma has meant more time out than I’d like and I’ve really been sweating being away from the office too frequently :(

      2. NoPantsFridays*

        Woah, your employee has already used 13 days of sick leave this year? I’m guessing you have a different reset/rollover date than Jan 1 :)

        We get 5 days of paid sick leave per year so I guess the acceptable amount for me is up to 5 days, unless approved for FMLA. In 2014 I didn’t call in sick at all, though I was sick, I came in anyway because I didn’t look sick. That was also before I realized we had sick days. I wouldn’t do the same now.

        1. Katie the Fed*

          Oh, we actually earn 4 hours every two weeks, and they roll over/accrue. My point is that at that rate, that’s a LOT of sick leave to burn. I catch every disease that passes within a 25 mile radius and even I don’t use all of mine.

      3. fposte*

        I certainly wouldn’t think it was a problem until the burn rate exceeded what the annual allotment would dictate, and even then that’s a big “it depends.” I think I’d be less likely to be concerned with frequency of illness than any possibility it wasn’t illness or that their definition of illness was sufficiently broader than mine that we might run into problems down the line (if you have the flu on an event day, of course we’ll cover for you and you should be home; home for a hangover the same day, I have a problem with you).

        But there are also positions that people can’t work at home in and would be tough to have people out from extensively; I don’t know if I could be in a position where I had to have my butt in the seat every day any more, and since we can roll over sick leave in my job I really couldn’t justly say “as long as I have sick leave I should be allowed to use it” (I think I have something like six months of sick leave stored up now).

    3. QEire*

      Hi guys,

      I’m the OP, and yes, I’ve been in the position for about a year, and I’ve called in sick probably around 5 times. One of those was for the flu and I was out for two consecutive days. Honest question, is that too much for a year? My office is pretty generous with the sick time we accumulate, so I’m not sure. No one has ever brought the issue up with me.

      If this isn’t an excessive amount, my concern is that this happens every single time I’m out, including vacations and bereavement time (I had a family member pass away earlier this year, and had the same problem).


      1. Zillah*

        Others may differ, and perhaps my view is colored by the fact that I grapple with a few chronic health conditions, but I absolutely don’t think that the equivalent of once every couple months is too often.

      2. TotesMaGoats*

        In my opinion, no, that’s not too much leave. 5 days over a year and two of those count as one “instance” in my book. Seems like a normal amount to me. Given what you’ve told us, this is a problem with your boss not how much leave you are using.

      3. John*

        Not excessive in my view, and I’m someone who has limited patience for those who are out all the time.

      4. Bea W*

        In a year where you get hit with the flu, no 5 days isn’t excessive in that circumstance. It will also vary depending on the person. Some people are more prone to getting sick or have chronic health problems. Also in any given year you may or may not get something that makes it a good idea to call in sick. The question is really how you use the sick days. Some people will use them when they are not sick.

        Of course bosses have their own opinions. My opinion is if you are actually sick and it’s better to not come in, whether it’s because you feel like crap or because you are contageous, when calling in sick you’re not overusing the time.

      5. AnonyMouse*

        Five days in a year doesn’t seem at all excessive to me (although admittedly I’m in a country with more generous leave policies than the US, generally speaking). I also think if your boss had a problem with how much time you were taking off, it would be much better for him to handle it by telling you he needed you in the office more reliably, not by saying nothing and emailing you anyway when you’re not there. I think Alison’s advice and opinion on this is pretty spot on.

    4. Bobotron*

      This is exactly what I was thinking. If OP has only been there a year and this is a constant issue, maybe the boss is being passive aggressive about the call offs. I’ve been at my job 6 months and have yet to take time off (knock on wood, I don’t want to get sick!).

      1. Zillah*

        Okay, so this is kind of what I was talking about in my comment right below this.

        It’s great for you that you haven’t had to take off time in six months. Really – I mean that. But not everyone has your immune system or good fortune, and presenting your situation as though it’s something everyone should strive for really does come off as a little ableist. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with getting sick, and I don’t think it confers any information about your work ethic or character. Perfect attendance is nice, but it’s not a thing I think people should be overly concerned with striving for. There are more important aspects of your work.

        1. AnotherAlison*

          I agree with you, but as another not-sick-very-often person like Bobotron, having good health does color your perspective. The last true sick day I had was over a year ago for surgery. I was one of those kids with perfect attendance in school, and my mom claims she hasn’t had the flu. Ever.

          I think 5 days is a perfectly normal amount of time to be out sick, but if the boss is someone who hasn’t thrown up since 1987, he might subconsciously think it’s a lot. I can also see how when coupled with vacation and bereavement leave (and maybe an hour here and there for doctor’s appointments, etc.), it might seem like the OP is gone all the time.

          1. Zillah*

            Absolutely – but I think this is a case where it’s useful to be mindful of your privilege, even as you point out that others won’t necessarily be (as has been the case when we’ve talked about other -isms on AAM, especially racism and sexism). We can’t change the outside world, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to change our own perspectives, you know?

    5. Zillah*

      I’m not sure how often the OP has called in sick, but they do say that they haven’t used all the sick leave they’re entitled to yet, and they also say that all projects have been completed on time – so I don’t think any frustration is really warranted here, from either her boss or her coworker. It can be a constant problem without the OP calling out every other week – four or five times would establish that as a really problematic pattern, IMO, but calling out four or five times throughout a year is really not a lot.

      I also want to point out something that isn’t directed at you, but more as a general comment about sick leave that makes sense to put here:

      Sometimes, discussions about sick leave can veer into ableism pretty quickly, and I think that’s something to be mindful of when we talk about it. Sure, there are some people who abuse the system, but there are many others (who outnumber the first group, IMO) who are grappling with legitimate long-term medical conditions. There are points at which calling out does become a problem whatever the reason is, but that point is not when you haven’t even used all the sick leave you’re entitled to. People who call out more often but still within what they’re given are often seen as lazy, and that’s hugely problematic on several levels.

      1. Zillah*

        Just a quick followup – I would also say that this is where having the option to occasionally telecommute can really be a lifesaver for people with chronic health conditions in particular, but really everyone. We’ve all had days where we couldn’t drag ourselves up and into work, but where we weren’t so sick that we wouldn’t have been able to at least put in half a day at home.

      2. GOG11*


        I don’t know how this all works in a legal sense or anything, but if it is too detrimental to business operations to offer X amount of sick leave, why offer that much?

      3. Cat*

        I think there’s also a huge tension in the American workplace, where if you call out too often, you’re judged for it as lazy but if you come to work sick, you’re the subject of “AGH, WHY CAN’T THEY STAY HOME” rants. It’s not easy to walk the line between those two things, and I think the result is that a lot of conscientious workers end up in this cycle of “am I not sick enough or too sick” overanalysis, which is even harder to effectively navigate when you’re not thinking well because you’re, you know, sick.

        All of which is to say, I think that, in general, it’s good to have some compassion both for people who call in when you think you wouldn’t and for people who don’t when you think you would have. There’s clearly a point where it’s abuse, but there should also be some leeway in there.

        1. C Average*

          Yeah, and you know what can go a long way to alleviating this tension? A liberal approach to working from home.

          Yeah, I know it’s not possible in every workplace, but it’s a godsend when it’s applied in a workplace where it is doable.

          We can work from home almost without question. If you’ve got the sniffles or allergies or a hangover or a sprained ankle or any number of minor ailments that you’d be more comfortable dealing with at home, you can stay there and log in from there. No judgment, no impact to the team, no PTO usage required, no person in adjacent cube hacking up a lung while you’re on a conference call. It’s awesome.

          1. Zillah*


            I love liberal work from home policies wherever possible. They really do improve quality of life for a lot of people (and help people who do get sick a lot hold down a decent job!).

            1. fposte*

              I’m in total agreement, as somebody who’s benefited from them. That said, there are jobs that aren’t suited to it, such as many support positions; from the sound of what the OP’s being asked to do, her job might be a difficult one to do from home.

          2. Cat*

            I agree with this totally, though I think it’s important to emphasize that it alleviates it rather than eliminates it, since in many workplaces, when folks do and do not take advantage of telecommuting (either because they came into the office or because they straight out called out sick) becomes another source of tension.

          3. AnotherAlison*

            My job is not very well-suited for it, but it can be done. The problem seems to be the intermittent nature of the at-home workers. (I work with a guy with a chronic medical condition who works from home several days a week, so I’m thinking of him.) He works his 8 hours a day, but at random hours and not always responding promptly. I think from his perspective, it’s a win-win, but from mine, there are many times when I’ve needed him on the call with a client at the last minute and I can’t get in touch with him to do that. If he was in the office & I didn’t get an email response or phone call, I’d walk over and see him. (It’s not poor management/scheduling with the client, it’s the nature of the work. I’m also not his boss, just a project manager & he will do some work on my jobs.)

            1. Cat*

              We have also had this person. It’s tough because I think being out of the office can really easily lead to perception gaps between you and the people who are there about what your job is and how easy you are to get a hold of.

    6. Silver*

      At my last job my manager let me use PTO as sick days when I ran out.
      There were extenuating circumstances in that I had caught whooping cough at work which turned into bacterial pneumonia. (Ended up needing almost 2 weeks off).

      I’m in Australia so this may not be the case in other countries.

    7. Julia*

      We consider any more than the equivalent of seven days a year for a FT employee to be abuse of sick leave, unless you are on FMLA or have doctor’s notes for an illness of three days or more.

      1. ReanaZ*

        I get 10 sick days a year. I found out recently that my office’s official policy is that if at any point you’ve used up more than half of the sick leave you’ve accumulated, you’re technically under suspicion for abuse of sick leave. I think this is outrageous as a policy. A) Why do I have 10 days if I’m only “allowed” to take 5? (Actually, 10 might be the minimum required by law here.) and B) It’s not just 5 days that are “suspicious”, it’s any time you’ve used more than half. Which makes it really hard to get ahead if you’re sick early in the year or a couple of days in a row.

        I never used to think of myself as a sickly person, but apparently I am. I don’t think I’ve ever had a year where I’ve taken fewer than 5 sick days in all of my working years. A few migraines, a flare up of bad back pain, a bout or two of strep throat and I’ve blown out more than 5 days pretty quick.

        Luckily, my boss/department doesn’t seem to care as long as my work gets done (this policy seems to mostly affect our front-line staff and I’m several steps back), but I have a fear of one day HR noticing my sick leave and being all WHAT IS THIS EXPLAIN YOURSELF!!! I don’t even know how much leave I’ve taken this year, but a chunk of it has been unpaid so the answer is probably ‘too much’. (I’ve had a bad flare up of a a chronic medical condition and broke a limb in a couple of places while commuting home from work. I’ve tried to turn in doco for both of these, but my boss/department didn’t take to take it. It seems to be okay, but yeah, I fear it coming back to bite me.)

  14. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

    You have to throw the gauntlet down. There are certain things – when you’re out on vacation, you’re out on PTO and there’s an important family occasion, Christmas morning (apologies to the “bah humbug” crowd, but some of us do celebrate that holiday), etc.

    There are times that you should not be disturbed over ordinary work.

    I am reminded of one time when I was about to be reprimanded at the behest of a senior manager – for not answering my phone on a Friday night – we worked Tues morn through Saturday morning (Friday night) I had worked in a semi-industrial environment, and was out on vacation. My two co-workers had worked overtime during the week to “make up the slack” – and both decided to call in sick on Friday night.

    I was on vacation. I was 1500 miles away. This is before phone boxes, cell phones, etc. The guy who was out to get me did not dwell on my co-workers’ inefficiency, nor their Friday night “sick call” – and not that I was on vacation — but why I didn’t answer my phone to come into work.

    You have to set the boundaries.

  15. A Jane*

    I gotta say, I’m super thankful for my managers for allowing people to rest when they’re out sick or taking a vacation. To me, it shows that they respect people’s time. Also, on the very very very rare case someone does call, I know it’s an actual emergency and don’t ever have to question why it couldn’t wait till Monday.

  16. Mallorie, the recruiter*

    I am definitely in the camp of using sick time when appropriate and taking the time to feel better, but I can’t help but wonder how many times this person is calling off. She mentions having been in the role for about a year, but talks about this issue as if its pervasive, even saying that she is not taking sick time because of it:

    “He seems to get upset whenever I’m out of the office, and I’ve actually started going in when I’m sick or injured and should probably stay home.”

    Sounds like overall the boss is being a wacko and doesn’t understand technology (among other things!). But I wonder if some of the irritation on his end is the AMOUNT of sick time. I could be 100% off base with this. And if that is part of the problem, its really on him to address it, not for the OP to be a mind reader. And she did specifically say that she still HAS sick time to take, so she must not be using it so often that she is running out of it.

    Just a thought!

    1. QEire*

      I’m the OP, and yes, I’ve been in the position for about a year (maybe a little over now), and I’ve called in sick probably around 5 times. One of those was for the flu and I was out for two consecutive days. Honest question, is that too much for a year? My office is pretty generous with the sick time we accumulate, so I’m not sure. No one has ever brought the issue up with me.

      If this isn’t an excessive amount, my concern is that this happens every single time I’m out, including vacations and bereavement time (I had a family member pass away earlier this year, and had the same problem).


      1. Mallorie, the recruiter*

        I would say that 5 days is not excessive, and it sounds like you’ve had just a rough year in general (and we all have those). I took my first sick day in 2.5 years last month…. but I just don’t get sick often, and when I am sick, I’m not nearly sick enough to not come into work. On my team, I had a handful of employees completely out of sick time this past year (we get 6 days) and and handful that had used less than 2 days.

  17. Interviewer*

    I think everyone has great suggestions that cover reminding the boss that the OP is out sick, or having a great backup, but it doesn’t really solve the issue that the boss is annoyed by the OP being out sick and doesn’t respect that time off. The OP even fears losing her job over taking sick time benefits.

    Is there an HR person you can speak to about this situation? Perhaps the message needs to be reinforced with your boss from a different direction, especially when he doesn’t appear to hear you. It sounds like you might be non-exempt, and my company goes to a great deal of effort to prevent the vast majority of non-exempts from being able to check email remotely, because we’d have to pay them. Having that kind of support behind you as you recuperate could make a huge difference.

    Good luck to you.

    1. just laura*

      I agree with your first paragraph. Because OP has medical issues and must keep this job, I am afraid that she will be (understandably) less assertive in this situation.

      OP, what do other people in your office do? Do they work from home when they are sick? How does the boss treat their sick days? I want to be sure that you are not the nail that sticks up in your office. :(

      You may want to get in CYA mode in regards to your email communications. You don’t want all of HIS problems to reflect cumulatively on YOU.

      Also, do you have a colleague who can truly be your coverage while you’re out? If not, I’d invest the time in someone (and be willing to do it for her, too).

      Good luck!

  18. Elysian*

    I have multiple people who assign me things, and they’re all like this as far as sick or vacation time. I need to be available for truly urgent things, so I have to keep checking email, but usually my bosses just forget I’m out of the office (especially if they are also out). I handle it with this response, every single time:

    I am out of the office (sick/on vacation). Is this something that can wait until I come back on _Date_, or is it urgent?”

    I feel like this gets our expectations aligned while not being overly aggressive about “I will not do work on vacation!!!!!!” because sometimes I just have to.

    1. Case of the Mondays*

      I like this. This avoids the situation where boss is just emailing you things to do when you get back and you now think they are due immediately. Avoids confusion and puts the onus on him/her to say “yes, I want this done now despite you being sick/on vacation.”

  19. AB*

    I had a superior that was exactly like this (he wasn’t my direct boss, but was someone above me in the food chain that I supported on projects).

    It didn’t matter if it was an unplanned sick day or a planned vacation, he would email and call. He would inevitably get upset about something. 99% of the things he would email or call about were things that weren’t urgent, were things I’d already taken care of, or were things I didn’t handle.

    He was so awful whenever I took time off that I avoided taking sick time, to my detriment. At one point, I ignored a bad respiratory infection because I didn’t want to take the time off (even to go to the dr) and ended up with pneumonia and needed to go to the hospital. My husband called and emailed everyone in the office that I would be out and would be unreachable (hospital visit) and was under strict orders from my doctor not to talk or do any work. On the first day alone, the guy called and emailed 37 times. None of the things were urgent or were things that he couldn’t get help from someone else with. When I got back to work, he screamed at me (desk pounding included) and accused me of being lazy, not taking my work seriously, and that I shouldn’t be frivolously taking time off work when I’m needed in the office. During the three years I worked there, I never once used all of my sick days or vacation days for the year (and our leave policy was not very generous).

    While my work wasn’t generally very time sensitive, I always made sure that there was someone who could handle any emergencies. There were at least three people in the office who knew where all my files were, the log-in info for my computer, email and voicemail, and that I would keep apprised of my projects. Even when I would email and say “Jane will be covering X while I’m out, please contact her with any questions”, it really would not matter. He would still email or call me and berate me.

    1. C Average*

      Holy crap. Thirty-seven times? When you were in the hospital? Was the guy’s name Ebenezer, by chance?

      He sounds unhinged and really, really unpleasant to work with.

      1. AB*

        Hahaha, we had a knickname for him and it wasn’t quite as nice as Ebenezer. He was the most unpleasant person I’d ever known in my life (and that’s saying something). At least once a month, he would drive one of the assistants to tears. The weirdest part was, in his own bizarre way, I think he liked me, or at least liked me better than the other people in the office.

          1. AB*

            If he was spectacularly talented, I wasn’t aware of it. He spent a lot of time watching soccer on the tv in his office. I think the reason he was able to get away with his antics (and that’s really only a very small part of it) was that the company was foreign held. He was rather high up in the ranks, and the people with the ability to fire him were at the head office in another country. Also in that particular country, it can be really difficult to fire people, esp if they’ve been there a long time.

    2. Lia*

      AB, did we used to work together? I worked with a guy much like the one you describe.

      One of his direct reports was the primary target of most of this. The direct report got a hideous case of food poisoning (from food at a work event!! so did a number of other guests) and went home after being violently ill at work in front of um, numerous witnesses (including boss). The next morning, she was still feeling bad so she called in early and said she would not be in. Boss called her REPEATEDLY until she answered her phone at home, where she was trying to rest “to make sure she was actually at home sick and not out at the beach or something”, despite having seen how ill she was just 12 hours prior.

      He also obsessively stalked his report’s arrival and departure times, until the union told him to stop (we were only mandated to keep time sheets to show days taken for sick/vacation leave, not to show the time arrived and left daily).

      ugh, I do not miss that.

      1. AB*

        I always wondered what happened to the elementary school bullies when we got older. I feel like they grow into horrible middle-management types who use their tiny empires to go on belittling and bullying people.

  20. TotesMaGoats*

    After a very rocky start at my current job, I told all the bosses I’ve had after that (4 to be exact, we re-org every 3rd Thursday), that if I’m on vacation then I’m not checking email. My staff know how to reach me if the building has burned to the ground and that’s the only reason to call me. If I’m out sick, I’ll check email from time to time but I will not respond unless it’s an urgent thing.

    You’ve got to retrain your boss. Allison gives great steps here but it’s probably going to be a long road.

    1. long time reader first time poster*

      Yep, this is what I do — I send an email letting my boss and team know I won’t be checking email, and that if there is an urgent message they can reach me via text message.

      They respect that, though, and wouldn’t escalate to a more immediate communication message without very good reason. You have to know your audience, I suppose. I had an old boss that used to text me at 8:00 Saturday morning and would get antsy if I didn’t respond immediately…

      1. C Average*


        (I actually put something like that in an OOO notification when I was out of the country for my honeymoon. “For questions about chocolate, contact Wakeen at 123-4567. For questions about teapots, contact Jane at 765-4321. For true emergencies, for the love of Pete call 911!” I’m glad I work with people who have a sense of humor and actually find this sort of thing amusing.)

      2. TotesMaGoats*

        LOL. It’s a long running joke in my office that I only want to know about the state of the office while I’m on vacation AFTER the building has already burned to the ground and the fire department is leaving the scene. I had a lot of anxiety when I first started this job about the building and making sure it was locked and what not. Now I just don’t care as long as my people are okay. Not that there is much of a hazard but we all get anxious about things from time to time.

  21. HR Manager*

    If your boss still doesn’t seem to get it after all the good suggestions here from the commenters and you’ve addressed this with him, I would engage the help of HR (if you have a competent HR dept) to see if they may be able to start working on him to have him understand – out sick is out sick. Sure, emergencies can happen, and there are rare occasions when a boss may want to call and explain the situation and see if you’re doing work is possible, but it should not be a regular thing and “sick day” certainly should not be seen as a “work from home”.

  22. Artemesia*

    Is this his way of suggesting that you are out sick a lot? It sounds like you are and are planning more of same. Perhaps it is totally unavoidable because you have a medical situation that means being out a lot, but I have never worked in a setting where people were out a lot sick and enough experiences of this for it to be a problem as stated in the OP does suggest frequent absences. Maybe it is a run of bad luck, but I’d worry that patience would run thin when someone is constantly taking sick days.

    1. Zillah*

      So I don’t mean to harp on the ableism thing, but:

      Is this his way of suggesting that you are out sick a lot? It sounds like you are and are planning more of same.

      Your use of the word “plan” here is really bothering me, because IMO, it suggests both premeditation and frivolousness. You plan vacations – you don’t plan to get sick or need medical procedures. It’s just a thing that happens that you have to deal with when it does.

      1. Katie the Fed*

        I think you might be misreading – OP says she’s planning to take leave for medical procedures. It’s not a value judgement – it’s what she’s planning. I didn’t get the sense that artemesia has an opinion on whether or not it’s too much sick leave, but rather that the boss in question does.

        1. Zillah*

          I get that – but again, “planning” sounds frivolous to me and like there’s a lot more choice in the matter than there typically is. Plans can be changed; medical treatments often can’t be. I wouldn’t say the OP is planning to take leave for these procedures – I’d say that they have to.

          1. Colette*

            Sometimes there is an element of planning, though, especially when you’re talking about non-urgent medical procedures (e.g. wisdom teeth removal). You don’t plan that you need the procedure, but you can plan when it happens.

            1. Judy*

              I’d say more than sometimes you at least have time to plan how you will handle things. I’ve been lucky to not have surgeries, but between my parents and husband have been involved with 6 surgeries total in the last 5 years. None of them were emergencies, and the two that were urgent-ish, we still knew 2 weeks in advance. My dad’s knee replacement was scheduled 3 months in advance, and people were amazed we got in so fast.

              One of my cousins had a heart cath on a Thursday, they saw things that were troubling, and had his bypass the next Wednesday.

          2. Felicia*

            Generally you plan when you have medical procedures unless they’re a life or death thing, so I don’t understand what you object to by the term plan? And the time of your non-urgent medical procedure can be changed, it just means you’ll have to wait longer.

            E.g. I had to get surgery on my ankle, so I planned that surgery and leave surrounding it for a specific date and time – the doctor had a cancellation and asked if i wanted the new time instead , so I took the new time and changed the time for my medical leave, still with plenty of notice for my employer.

            IMO you should plan your leave for your medical procedure. Is it just the word planning that you object to? (though I don’t understand why). Because planning is what you do for non life or death medical procedures, that’s what it is regardless of what you call it.

            1. nonegiven*

              You plan to have a cancerous tumor removed next week, is that not life threatening? It’s not something you want to put off for 6 months.

          3. fposte*

            I think that’s going overboard. “Plan” is a perfectly legitimate term for arranging to take leave for medical treatments, and it doesn’t suggest they’re optional, just that they’re not taking you by surprise.

          4. Zillah*

            I don’t know, guys – I guess I just don’t love the phrase “planning” in this context because I think it suggests a certain amount of choice that it doesn’t seem like the OP really has. That said, rereading it, I can see how it can be read a different way – I’m not having the greatest day, so maybe I was just misreading it. :)

            1. AnonyMouse*

              I can see why people read it differently, but I generally agree with everything you’ve been saying in the comments here. Jobs that offer sick leave do it for a (good) reason and looking down on people who take advantage of that offer really isn’t fair (not at all saying that’s what anyone’s been doing here, but it does happen sometimes).

              And on that note, this is as good a time as any to say I really appreciate your comments here! I think you make some very important points :)

            2. Beezus*

              I think “plan” is the right term. I can see how it starts to feel uncomfortable, though, when talking about working with a boss whose apparent boundary issues make it sound as if the only way a procedure could be planned well, in his opinion, would be to plan not to have the procedure at all. (I had a former boss similar to what the OP describes, who objected to an employee scheduling a tonsillectomy…he planned it during a normally slow period, with part of his recovery over a holiday, but we wound up with a crisis at the same time and it was crazy for a few days. OldBoss thought the procedure should have been rescheduled, but my coworker was mindful of when he planned it originally, it was definitely medically necessary – he had been out a ton for tonsil infections, and we could get the job done without him.)

        2. Ann O'Nemity*

          This post is timely. I’ve recently realized that my boss’s expectation that I’m always accessible while on PTO is not acceptable to me anymore. (The realization came to me while I was trying to work in the hospital on my cell.) Even if I lose my job over it, I’m just not going to do it anymore.

      2. Artemesia*

        She says she has medical procedures coming up ie she is already indicating she is planning to be out in the future. When someone has a chronic medical condition that needs accommodation then they need to be proactive about making arrangements for such accommodation. Frequent ‘being out sick’ is a huge red flag to an employer of unreliabilty — knowing that there is a serious condition makes it easier to frame that as a problem needing accommodation rather than just an employee who takes every opportunity to stay home with minor issues.

        Most people are not out sick often enough for this question to come up. Sometimes people have a run of bad luck. But frequent absences are a problem for most employers.

        1. fposte*

          I agree that they can be, but I don’t see the OP’s absence level as being significant. She’s been there a year and she’s taken, from the sound of it, 6 sick days for 5 illness events. Maybe that’s higher than some people, but it doesn’t seem remarkable to me, and given that the boss was doing this right from the first time it doesn’t seem to be about a concern that her absences are excessive.

    2. QEire*

      Hi Artemesia,

      I’m the OP. I’ve called out sick about 5 times over the course of the year. Of those 5, one took two days when I was out with the flu. I asked above if this was excessive for being in the job about a year. I haven’t used up all my sick time and no one from my office has sat me down to discuss a problem with attendance. A few people responded above that in their opinion, this was not excessive. I also get similar messages during vacations and bereavement time.

      I am planning for a surgery that will result in short-term disability leave, so that is the ‘planned’ portion of this. I worry about using sick time, one because I get messages like in my original email, and two because I do have this medical procedure looming. I worry that I might lose my benefits, and I worry that no matter how much I try to prepare for being gone, I’ll get a bunch of emails and messages because my boss forgets that I’m not around.

      1. fposte*

        Since it happens every time with your boss, I don’t think it’s about him feeling that you’re taking too much sick time; I think he just does this when your chair is empty.

        When you say “short term disability,” do you mean you’re going to be taking FMLA? You almost certainly should be, and in that case I might loop HR in about this; he legally should not be asking you to do stuff if you’re out on FMLA, and they might want to make sure that doesn’t happen.

        1. fposte*

          Oh, does your username mean you’re actually in Ireland? If so, never mind anything I’ve said about legality.

          1. QEire*

            2nd generation American. Irish grandmother. There are times though when I really wish I was in Ireland. :)

            As to your point, it will be FMLA, and I have told HR about the procedure, so I really hope everything runs smoothly. I just have concerns based on previous events.

            1. fposte*

              I might touch base with them about this particular concern, though, not just the procedure. It’s not reporting him or anything–you’re just looking for guidance to ensure the office needs are met while you’re out and that the office stays in compliance.

      2. Wonderlander*

        I can’t speak for every industry and every office, but in MY office, calling in sick 5 times in one year is a lot. And I wish it wasn’t. I’m given 4 sick days a year total, so 5 is already over my maximum. I consider being out sick to be a spontaneous illness/injury/mental health day and not one you are planning ahead for (ie: woke up this morning with a migraine versus needed to take a day off for my scheduled physical). But that’s just my view of sick days versus PTO. For context, last year I called in sick maybe twice, and left early due to not feeling well once. But these are just MY experiences and MY office -YMMV.

        1. fposte*

          Wow, that’s really stingy–it’s below half the national average. Fingers crossed for your continued good health.

        2. so and so*

          Yeah, I’m with you. I get all of three sick days at my job and have never used them all. It’s just Not Done around here.

          Of course, that means that I’m often sick at work and my coworkers and I pass around diseases like chips at a party but that is the culture of the place.

          OP, I would look hard at your coworkers sick day habits. Just because you have a liberal policy doesn’t mean that it’s culturally acceptable in your office to call out do much. I’m not saying it’s reasonable, it isn’t, but it’s something you have to be aware of if you plan to stay long term.

  23. DrJulieSunny*

    I feel like the poor OP has had to defend herself several times in response to some of the commenters, particularly about the number of times she’s called out sick — even when she’s already responded to that earlier, which I’m quite sure that subsequent commenters did not see, but still…it seems almost like the OP has to use more energy to repeat their history of sick time utilization, which isn’t what the OP came here for. I read this blog and the comments because of the exceptionally useful information and perspectives, which help me see aspects of situations that I would not have seen otherwise, *especially* when it’s painful or tough love (bc we all need to hear that sometimes, me included) but this particular OP comes across pretty sincere and honest. I’m hoping that we commenters (is it “we” or “us”? I struggled for a few minutes) can use what we’ve learned from other posters to help us refine our radar for subsequent OP’s so we can more easily identify those individuals we should probably give the benefit of the doubt/assume good intentions — so that we can continue to be helpful and useful resources for each other.

  24. PinkiePieChart*


    It’s rather passive-aggressive, but can you forward the original email you sent? I’ve done that on occasion, but usually when I’m feeling particular snarky.

    1. PinkiePieChart*

      Wow, that was a commenting fail. This was supposed to be in there, too.

      “I’ll also have to resend him stuff because he can’t find it. But, even when that happens he accuses me of having never sent it in the first place. “

      1. TotesMaGoats*

        I ALWAYS forward things instead of resending. You are going to see that time stamp and then at the very least you’ll feel bad for accusing me of not doing my job and at the most you’ll apologize.

        1. NoPantsFridays*

          Me too (although this is thankfully rare at my workplace)…maybe soften it with something like “Hey, here’s the email I sent earlier in case it didn’t come through the first time” or “Hey, here’s the email I sent earlier for your reference” etc. although for me it’s usually someone saying they “lost” or can’t find my email about something, rather than accusing me of not sending it. It happens sometimes with mailing list / distributions where someone either deleted the email by accident or it’s hiding in an Outlook folder.

  25. Saucy Minx*

    I don’t understand why the OP is to find someone to hold the hand of this feeble man. Wouldn’t that be for HR or someone up the line? It makes me wonder whether she is supposed to be doing all these things herself, as others have pointed out, & even if they are her duties, why would she be the one to find someone to cover for her?

    I’d be wondering by what authority she was making that request, if I were in Jane’s shoes & had a colleague say to me: “I need you to do this, that, & the other for Mr Helpless when I am out of the office.”

    It seems like just one more instance of solving problems for this fellow that are his own problems to solve.

    1. fposte*

      If she’s support staff, though, those things are her job. And that’s the kind of thing you do find people to cover for when you’re out. Her boss may be annoying about the stuff, but that doesn’t automatically mean it’s stuff he’s expected to be doing for himself.

  26. Mockingjay*

    Two thoughts:

    First, set boundaries. I have a boss who calls staff chronically after hours and on weekends. If they don’t respond right away, they get more texts and voicemails, “why didn’t you pick up?” Most of the requests are things that can wait. I nipped this in the bud by refusing to give him my personal cell phone number. He has learned to leave me a message on my desk number. He knows that I will listen to the message when I get in, then research the issue or find the item. Only then do I call him back or poke my head in his office, solution in hand. Took some repetition, but he finally figured out that giving me time to respond results in a much better outcome (for him), rather than a rushed effort with mistakes.

    In regard to using sick leave, colds and flu are completely unpredictable year to year. Some years I don’t call out at all. Then there was the spectacular winter when our entire software test team got the flu. We worked in a dilapidated trailer with lousy ventilation. We tried really hard to keep our germs to ourselves, using hand sanitizer, spraying keyboards and doorknobs with Lysol, to no avail. Nearly all the team went home and the test schedule was delayed for a week. We all burned a lot of SL that year. That’s why companies offer sick leave. Sometimes, you just gotta go home.

  27. Lindrine*

    I also make myself an appointment and block off my calendar if I can so people know I am not available for meetings. You could even send your boss an OOO meeting “invitation” that is set to “free” but also has a reminder built in for a day you know you will be out. We use this in our department.

  28. JR*

    A few years ago, my company decided to convert everyone from salaried to hourly. They were upset that people were leaving an hour or two early on Fridays, though not particularly upset that people were working 3-4 extra hours on other days, which were busy, and then taking a couple hours Fridays, which were slow.

    They put in a time clock and sent out a memo that everyone was hourly and had to clock in and out.

    It initially caused some resentment, especially from people who worked extra hard, but it’s actually been a godsend:

    1. No more checking e-mail after hours. They have to pay you to be on call if you’re hourly and expected to check e-mail.
    2. No more checking e-mail when sick or on vacation.
    3. No more fixing something late at night without getting paid O.T.

    You should see if you qualify to be an hourly employee vs. salaried.

  29. books*

    Also, Allison’s point #3 is important. Is there a Jane? Can you connect with her so she knows the ins & outs and include her in the message you send your boss the morning you call out sick? It might be a little extra effort on her part, but asking her to check in on your boss (walk to his office, remind him your out, ask what he needs) on the days you’re out may help alleviate the problems. He just sounds scatterbrained, and the suggestions above about putting something on his calendar for when you’re out are helpful. (Even if it’s writing it on his calendar in marker because he doesn’t use the one in outlook. :))

  30. CRo*

    I once worked for a woman who was NEVER out sick. One weekend she was helping a friend move, and a pickup truck rolled into her and then THROUGH the wall of a shed. She borrowed a wheelchair and came to work on Monday BEFORE seeing her doctor.
    I felt really stupid calling in sick to her for a sinus infection, even though my headache prevented me from actually thinking clearly.

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