My concern is that I look as if I’m dodging work by not divulging the reason for a particular health-related absence.

Share story

Thoughts and suggestions for your workplace conundrums, from a guy with well-intentioned opinions.

Q: It is common in my organization for people to disclose their illness when calling in sick. I don’t mind doing this when it’s something mundane, like a cold. But sometimes one has personal issues that you don’t feel like telling your boss about. I’m talking about something that means one or two days out of the office — not a week or more, when I feel some sort of disclosure is probably appropriate. My concern is that I look as if I’m dodging work by not divulging the reason for a particular health-related absence.

A: Whether this is some sort of explicit rule or just an informal but pervasive office norm, let’s think about what the underlying goal must be. I assume that the point is to discourage spurious sick days, not some kind of bizarre voyeuristic urge to learn the gory details of every employee’s ailments. And it’s certainly easier to fudge the reason for a day off by being vague. (When I was young, I knew someone who would turn up after an absence from school with a parental note saying simply, “Kelly was ill.” Kelly had decidedly laissez-faire parents and was, more often than not, at the beach.)

So chances are, you really don’t need to stray into too-much-information territory to explain a sick day — and I would rather avoid veering into that same territory by offering overly specific hypotheticals. So try this: If you’re not comfortable revealing the cause, just focus on one symptom; if you don’t want to get into the symptoms, just name the cause. For instance, “stomach trouble” can be a manifestation of a wide range of ailments — and it is, in my experience, pretty much a conversation stopper. What you’re looking for is something that’s not a lie but that strongly discourages further questions, or any reaction at all beyond, “Feel better soon!”

Survey says: We told you so

Q: Last year, our company conducted an employee survey, with questions covering everything from workload and management to mood and office politics. Employees in my department, at least, were very honest — and we had the lowest scores in the company. The head of the department has tried to make changes, but nothing has really stuck. We remain miserable. The scores will be just as low this year, if not worse.

So now there is buzz around the office about how candid we should be in this year’s survey. Should we be brutally honest? Should we say nothing has changed? Should we name names when describing problem situations? Many are nervous about rocking the boat. But some are eager to put it all in writing for the chief executive and head of human resources to read.

It seems these surveys could be helpful, but companies need to use them to make changes.

A: Your final point is, of course, indisputable: For such surveys to have any effect, management must figure out how to act on them. And unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to toss off a survey than to design it carefully and think through a concrete plan about how to make the most of whatever the survey reveals.

That doesn’t mean employees should blow it off, and it’s encouraging that you and your colleagues are engaged enough to try to figure out the best way to use this mechanism in a department that sounds as if it could use some productive feedback.

Although I don’t know all the details of this specific survey — how much latitude it offers, whether the answers are anonymous — I’d say some basic guidelines apply here. Let’s start with the questions about whether to “name names” and be “brutally honest.” The real issue is, what might actually lead to change? Informing management that “Smithers is a toadying moron who couldn’t manage a car pool, let alone our department,” for instance, might feel honest. But it’s too brutal to be useful. “We’re all miserable,” doesn’t help much either.

It’s reasonable to be specific about why workers are unhappy without resorting to scapegoating or just making the whole situation sound hopeless. If your department head tried to put in place changes that might have helped, try to build on that: “Smithers’ idea to do X sounded promising, but it fell by the wayside.”

It may also be useful to point to priorities from that previous survey that linger: “We were hopeful that the morale issues raised last year would be addressed but disappointed when there was no follow-through.” It’s even better if these observations can include a nod toward what, exactly, you would like to see happen — maybe adopting a practice that some other, more effective department uses?

Finally, you might try to think of ways to add to your critique some suggestion for other mechanisms of fostering helpful feedback, or at least attaching some kind of accountability to the feedback you have already given. Even in the best circumstances, an annual employee survey has limits in its ability to improve a workplace in a material way.

Just remember that the kind of change you are looking for won’t happen overnight, so don’t use this survey just to blow off some steam. Ideally, you want to split the difference between giving criticism that goes nowhere and playing it so safe that you’re not saying anything. The problems will come through clearly enough to top management, but without seeming personal or nasty.

As for your colleagues who seem skittish about offering frank feedback at all: That will pretty much guarantee that nothing will improve. It sounds, after all, as if this boat needs a bit of rocking.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times. Submit questions to Rob Walker at