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A Guide to Calling in Sick

Maryalene LaPonsie

Calling in sick can be a source of anxiety for workers who wonder when to call, what to say and how to say it. They may question if they are truly sick enough to take the day off or worry it will reflect poorly on them to miss a shift.

"We look at taking time off as something we shouldn't be doing," says Philippe Danielides, executive coach with Inner Current Coaching, which provides career coaching services to clients nationwide.

There are good reasons to stay home from work if you're not feeling well, but you'll want to call in the right way. Otherwise, you could risk alienating your boss and even losing your job. Keep reading for answers to all these common questions and concerns about calling in sick.

-- What to say when calling in sick.

-- What are good excuses for missing work?

-- How should you call in sick? Can you text in sick?

-- What your boss is allowed to ask.

-- Can you get fired for calling in sick?

-- Can your boss force you to go home if you're sick?

What to Say When Calling in Sick

Calling in sick doesn't need to be a drawn out affair. "Be direct and to the point," says Michael Elkins, an attorney and partner with MLE Law in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He says some people dance around the issue by saying they will try to make it in later if they feel better, knowing the chances of that are unlikely. It's better to simply say you won't be in and leave it at that.

[See: 8 Secrets of People Who Don't Get Sick.]

Another mistake people make is providing lengthy explanations as to why they can't come to work. You don't need to go into the details, and that could actually give the impression that you are exaggerating or lying. "If you're not calling for a real reason, you tend to provide too much of an explanation," according to Danielides.

What Are Good Excuses for Missing Work?

Ideally, you would check to see if your company has a sick policy prior to falling ill. However, in absence of that, a good rule of thumb is to stay home if you think you're contagious, says Amanda Augustine, a career expert with resume writing service TopResume. "An employer would not want to have you spread your germs," she says. Vomiting is another clear sign that it is time to stay home.

"It gets a bit fuzzy when it comes to sick family members, such as children," says MaryAnne Hyland, associate dean for undergraduate programs and student success and professor at Adelphi University's Robert B. Willumstad School of Business.

"Some employers do not have a policy for caring for sick family members (while) others have family sick days in addition to sick days for the employee." Check with your human resources office or employee handbook to see if your company has a formal policy.

Even if you aren't contagious, it may make sense to stay home if you don't think you'll be productive. There is little benefit for you or your boss if you come to work and don't get anything done. Depending on the nature of your job, you may be able to do some of your tasks from home as well.

However, faking an illness to stay home might not be in your best interest. Taking days off unnecessarily could exhaust your employer's goodwill and put your job in jeopardy. If you find yourself constantly looking for a reason to call in, it could be a symptom of a deeper problem. "Why are you looking for excuses not to go?" Danielides asks.

How Should You Call in Sick? Can You Text in Sick?

While we refer to the practice as calling in sick, "more often than not, it doesn't happen over the phone," Augustine says. Instead, workers may call, text, email or instant message their supervisor.

"It depends on the relationship you have with your boss," Danielides says. If you normally text with your employer, texting in sick would be acceptable. However, if communication is normally done via the phone, sending a text might not be appropriate.

Also, don't ask someone else in the office to pass along your message. "Most organizations expect that you will contact your boss, rather than a co-worker or (HR)," Hyland says.

However you deliver the message, make sure you are providing your employer with as much notice as possible. Except in unusual circumstances, calling in five minutes before your shift is about to begin is never advisable, according to Elkins.

[SEE: Best Work-Life Balance Jobs.]

What Your Boss Is Allowed to Ask

Your boss's natural reaction may be to ask what is wrong, but you are under no obligation to provide details of your illness. Many times, employers ask partly out of concern for your well-being and partly to gauge how long they will need to cover your shifts or workload. To address the latter concern, let your employer know when you expect to return, if possible.

If you need to take an extended medical leave, you may have to fill out paperwork to qualify for the job protections of the Family and Medical Leave Act, more commonly known as FMLA. However, even in these situations, medical information should be kept confidential by your company's HR department and does not need to be disclosed to a supervisor or co-workers, Elkins says.

"Employers can require a doctor's note when employees take sick days," Hyland states. However, there is no need for the note to include the nature of the illness.

Can You Get Fired for Calling in Sick?

Workers who belong to a union may have some added protections, but for most people, the answer depends on your state laws.

"If you're working in a state with at-will employees, they can fire you for anything that's not illegal," Augustine says. That means that unless you qualify for legal protections under FMLA or the Americans with Disabilities Act, there is nothing stopping an employer from firing you for calling in sick.

[SEE: 26 Careers With the Most Job Security.]

"If you're not showing up for work, you're not showing up for work," Elkins says. Employers may not be inclined to fire an otherwise good worker who calls in sick occasionally, but if they feel as though you are faking an illness, they may not be so understanding.

Can Your Boss Force You to Go Home if You're Sick?

"Absolutely," Elkins says. If your boss thinks you are ill, he or she can send you home. In which case, you may have been better off calling in sick to begin with.



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