How to Deal With Staff Who Lie About COVID-19 Symptoms


HR Insights for ProfessionalsThe latest thought leadership for HR pros

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

COVID-19 has left businesses facing all sorts of consequences and questions, including how to deal with employees lying about experiencing symptoms of the virus.

Article 4 Minutes
How to Deal With Staff Who Lie About COVID-19 Symptoms

COVID-19 has created a 'new normal' to which organizations and individuals all over the world have to adjust.

While the global rollout of vaccines is raising hopes that the human race will eventually be able to get the pandemic under control, political leaders and health experts have also stressed that we must learn to live with the virus.

One of the top priorities for employers during this time has been to maintain COVID-secure working practices. For many businesses, this means instructing employees to work from home, wherever possible, and following quarantine and isolation guidance when individuals may have been exposed to the virus or are showing signs of infection.

But these measures are only effective if used in the right way, and they rely on employees behaving with honesty and integrity. Unfortunately, this might not always be the case, so what should you do when you suspect your workers are lying to you?

The danger of dishonesty

Every employer wants to be able to trust its employees, and should be ready to show faith and confidence in those individuals who have earned it through their reliability and performance.

However, it's an unfortunate reality that workers sometimes lie to their employers, often to get time off. Research has shown that two in five employees in the US have called in sick when they weren’t. While another study found that 56% of employees in the UK have faked sick days, creating an annual cost of £5.6 billion ($7.7 billion) for businesses.

There are different reasons why employees might be dishonest about experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 or possibly coming into contact with the virus. Some people might be willing to take advantage of the isolation guidance and ongoing concern around the transmissibility of new variants of COVID-19 just to get some time off work, while others might not want to disclose symptoms because it’ll mean they have to quarantine, which for many is a big inconvenience.

This is a difficult situation for employers to manage. First and foremost, you need to show an understanding and respectful attitude to your employees taking time off, particularly in the midst of a major health crisis. However, you also need to be pragmatic and acknowledge the fact that some people will be prepared to lie either to benefit themselves, or to prevent themselves from being disadvantaged.

In extreme cases, dishonesty about COVID-19 symptoms can create substantial financial costs for the business and cause severe disruption for the rest of the workforce. There was evidence of this in a case involving a Fortune 500 company in the US, which saw an employee being accused of falsifying medical records and facing fraud charges.

"Employers should remain empathetic, sympathetic and reassuring given the continued spread of coronavirus. However, employers must also be vigilant about potential fraudulent reports." - Mark Keenan, Attorney with Barnes & Thornburg in Atlanta

Get as much information as possible

When you have concerns about the veracity of an employee's claims about COVID-19 symptoms, it's important to get as much information as possible to make an informed judgment.

If an individual tells you they can't come to work because they've been in close contact with someone who later tested positive for the virus, ask them to provide a detailed description of the circumstances to back up their initial verbal account. This will help you spot any inconsistencies that might cause you to question their story.

Get something down in writing

If you're concerned about workers being dishonest, it's a good idea to have certain assurances and pieces of information down in writing. Keeping detailed records will help you track trends and employee behavior over time, and give you clear data to refer to when you need it.

As far as reporting COVID-19 symptoms is concerned, you could consider asking employees to sign a form stating that the information they’ve disclosed is entirely true and accurate, and that they acknowledge the risk of disciplinary action if it becomes clear that they’ve lied.

Promote honesty and communication

Taking a more general view of how you expect employees to conduct themselves, the business will benefit from promoting an open, honest and communicative culture, where people feel comfortable speaking freely with their managers.

Keenan pointed out that COVID-19 could present an opportunity for employers to foster positive connections with their staff by showing what they're doing to help people stay safe. This will reduce the risk of employees lying to the company and also make it more likely that they’ll speak up if they notice their co-workers abusing the situation.

Keep your policies up to date

It's vital to constantly review and update your policies on attendance and absenteeism to ensure they're relevant, particularly at times when workforce health and wellbeing needs to be one of your top priorities.

Make sure your policies are carefully and clearly written so employees are in no doubt about what they need to do in certain situations and how frequently they should contact the company to provide updates.

If you're clear and unequivocal in your policies, you’ll minimize the risk of misunderstandings or miscommunications that could cause serious problems for the business.

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