Pearl was 20 years my senior and had a black cloud that followed her everywhere. The following is a partial list of her ailments and reasons for not coming to work over a four year period. Not one of these is made up.
- Bad knee (due to being assaulted by client).
- Food poisoning (she came across quite a bit of bad food).
- Kidney stones.
- Vomiting (oh my god, don’t even get me started on the vomiting).
- Pulled a back muscle from vomiting.
- Sore throat.
- Uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhea (her husband called me about this and begged me not to fire her).
- Pain modulator surgery (this was an implant she got in her back that cut off the pain from her knee. She was out 2 1/2 months for this. The standard time off is about two weeks per Pearl.)
- Numerous colds and flus (flues?).
- Bad reaction to antibiotics.
- Lack of sleep due to anxiety.
- Had a “nuclear” test for her gallbladder.
- Too stoned from medication to drive.
- Broke two of her toes (no she didn’t).
- Dog was put down.
- “Battery pack issues” and pain (from her implant).
- Fell (at home) and injured hand and back.
- Several times she was sent home by me due to crying uncontrollably.
- Brother critically ill.
- Swollen/distended belly (seriously, it looked like she was pregnant).
- Fell (at home) and injured neck.
- Ear surgery.
- Death of former mother-in-law.
- Severe allergy attack.
- Kidney infection.
- Asthma attack.
- “Having brain detoxified.”
In addition to these ailments, Pearl suffered from what we termed “selective laryngitis”. She would be perfectly fine all day and then randomly her voice would give out. The other staff pointed out that it seemed to happen more when a manager was around. This was a HUGE problem for them.
While having so many bizarre health issues is certainly amusing I don’t want you to think that I dismissed them or was insensitive. To the contrary, I was sympathetic to Pearl from the beginning. I never felt that any of her ailments weren’t real (rooted in cognitive issues? Certainly). The most important thing though: It didn’t matter if the ailments were real or not – she was missing a lot of work and it was having a negative impact on our company.
Most companies would never tolerate so many absences by an employee, but our corporate executives would never approve her dismissal because her worker’s comp case stayed open indefinitely (she had been assaulted by a client many years ago).
The other staff felt that she was not being held accountable for her absences and complained endlessly. To me. To HR. To our Executive Director. It was an incredibly stressful situation. I couldn’t tell them that I had given Pearl countless disciplinary actions but they were worthless because I couldn’t actually let her go.
I tried to work with her. I reduced her schedule. I took responsibilities away. I let her cry and vent in my office and I truly felt badly for her. It never seemed to help her feel better. I finally had to let go of being responsible for her health and happiness. After much soul-searching, I put my foot down with our executives and said that she needed to go.
Pearl, Shirley and I met and had a long discussion. We implored her to think about her long-term health and happiness and the reality that her health (and attendance) was never going to get better as long as she worked with us – the workload was too much and the commute (an hour and a half each way) was too far. The final message was: Wouldn’t it be better for you to leave on your own terms with your head held high then for us to have to let you go (she never seemed to realize that we wouldn’t and every time she returned from an absence she asked if she should get a box for her belongings).
She chose to leave on her own terms and gave us a week’s notice. After twelve years of employment with us, we gave her a big farewell party and many hugs. All of her worst critics said wonderful things about her and gave her farewell gifts.
I can’t say that I miss Pearl. It makes me feel like a terrible person to say that but we hired a really amazing replacement for her and it’s made work life so much better. It’s not problem-free – my staff still complain but the intensity is greatly reduced. After Pearl left I told myself I would call her every couple of weeks to check-in so that I could feel like a good person. But she was still Pearl and she had a litany of complaints every time I called her and so I called her less and less. The last time she visited she sent an email:
“I had to let you guys know I enjoyed my visit. I really realized how much I missed you all, but not enough to come back there, sorry.” And, really, I’m okay with that.