Saturday, March 08, 2008

"Presenteeism" in the workplace criticized; how does that affect I.T. consulting?


This past week, major media outlets presented reports criticizing the practice of “presenteeism”, where employees feel pressured to come to work sick.

The reports emphasized the risk of spreading viral infections (colds, influenza, norovirus, etc) to other workers, some of whom will take infections home to children and elderly. The reports suggested that management should change its attitude on this and send workers home. It was shown as an ethical problem: one cannot be as productive when sick.

In information technology, it’s a mixed bag. Many jobs are held by W-2 contractors, who will not get paid when sick. There is the sensitive possibility that a contractor, in these circumstances, has an “incentive” to come to work and spread illnesses to clients.

Yet the actual “danger” is really mixed. Many infections become subclinical and less disruptive as people get older. As adults, people with normal immune systems gradually develop increased resistance to infections similar to those that they have already had. Therefore, from the point of view of individual “self-interest,” gradual exposure to most everyday “germs” is a good thing, as one will develop resistance.

However, a few infections are novel, and exposure during an incubation period can pose grave dangers to everyone. It's not yet clear if this would really be true of avian influenza (H5N1 or similar) started spreading readily person-to-person, but this is certainly a grave concern. That is why there can be profound ethical problems, and the likelihood of the closing of many businesses should a sudden novel pandemic like H5N1 (or even something else now unknown, possibly an agent deliberately introduced) were to break out.

As for productivity, that depends on the kind of job. Many development jobs in information technology involve working alone at one’s own pace, and productivity is not as affected by mild illnesses. On the other hand, jobs in telephone support, operations or sales require more constant attentiveness and “regimentation,” and productivity is affected more.

Some states and local jurisdictions are considering toughening laws on sick leave, requiring employers with over a minimum number of associate to offer sick leave, and end the practice of bundling sick leave and vacation (which can reward “working sick”). A few states (California, Washington, New Jersey) have passed or are considering laws that mandate even some paid family leave. These laws could have an effect on how information technology contracting works. It’s possible that in some jurisdictions, W-2 contracts with no benefits could become illegal. That would force them to offer only corp-to-corp. That could change the culture of IT consulting, and place even more emphasis on the public online reputations of individual consultants, and make potential conflicts of interest any even more critical issue. Again, unintended consequences, perhaps.

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