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Lieke ten Brummelhuis

Simon Fraser University

Assistant Professor of Management

Read more about Lieke ten Brummelhuis

Do team members retaliate or cooperate when co-workers call in sick?


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Missed work due to employee absence is estimated to cost organizations in the U.S. about 202 billion dollars every year (Goetzel, Hawkins, Ozminkowski, & Wang, 2003).

Absenteeism, defined as the employee’s failure to report for scheduled work (Johns, 2008), can be seen as mildly deviant behaviour as the employee falls short in his or her contract with the employer, resulting in reduced organisational productivity (Harrison, Johns, & Martocchio, 2000).

Although employees may call in sick for legitimate reasons, there is a grey area of reasons for reporting sick that are less legitimate, such as not feeling like going to work, or conflicting demands between work and family (Johns, 2008).

Due to this information asymmetry concerning reasons for being absent, the problem is difficult to fight for organisations and difficult to study for researchers.

In an attempt to better understand the causes of absenteeism, previous research has examined absence behaviour in teams, unveiling that members imitate each other’s absence behaviour – they call in sick more frequently if others do so.

In this study (Ten Brummelhuis, Johns, Lyons, & Ter Hoeven, 2016), we examined why team members imitate absence behaviour of peers and under what conditions this imitation behaviour is most likely.

We examined why team members imitate absence behaviour of peers and under what conditions this imitation behaviour is most likely.

We conducted two studies. In the first study, a vignette study, we explored employees’ reasons for calling in sick. In the second study, a field study, we examined if imitation of sickness absence differed in high versus low socially-integrated teams. 

Study number one

In Study 1, we asked 299 employees who worked in teams for their current job to read a scenario.

The scenario indicated that their team members either had been sick often (high co-worker absence condition) or present most of the time (low co-worker absence condition) in the previous three months.

They were then asked to make a decision about going to work or calling in sick while imagining that they were not feeling well, although not really sick either.

After this decision, we asked them for the reason to attend work or to call in sick. We also measured respondents’ norms regarding sickness absence and cooperation.

The results confirmed the imitation phenomenon as respondents in the high co-worker absence condition were more likely to decide to call in sick (18.8%) than respondents in the low co-worker absence condition (5.3%).

Respondents in the high co-worker absence condition who decided to call in sick scored significantly higher on norms that approve of absenteeism, as well as norms that favour economic exchange (tit-for-tat) as opposed to cooperative exchange.

When asked to explain the reason for their decision in their own words, respondents who decided to call in sick in the high co-worker absence condition mostly said they did so to get even with their coworkers (economic exchange: 57.1%).

Employees who decided to go to work even while co-workers were often absent most commonly said they did so because of financial motives (20.5%) and cooperative exchange norms (19.9%).

We also examined if social integration had an effect on respondents’ reasons for going to work or calling in sick.

Employees working in high socially integrated teams disapproved more strongly of absence, while they held stronger cooperative norms as compared to employees with low social integration.

When we combine the insights gained through study 1, we would expect that employees in highly socially integrated teams are less likely to call in sick in response to co-workers’ absence because they strongly disapprove of absenteeism and want to be there for the team. We test this hypothesis in Study 2.

Study number two

The goal of study two was to examine if imitation of absence behavior is less likely in teams with high cohesion and task interdependency, using real teams in organizational settings.

Our sample included 514 employees from 97 teams, whereby a minimum of two team members needed to fill in the survey for a team to be included.

Each team member reported their absence levels in the previous three months, as well as team cohesion and task interdependency. Based on the information on absence levels provided by all team members, we calculated co-worker absence levels.

The results from the field study showed that the odds an employee calls in sick in response to high coworker absence are lower in high socially-integrated teams (.76 times lower) as compared to low socially-integrated teams (1.48 times higher).

This finding is in line with study one, in which we found that cooperative exchange and disapproval absence norms were stronger in highly socially-integrated teams.

We expected that in teams with high cohesion and task interdependency employees would feel a strong norm to be present and help out co-workers.

Study two confirmed that when studying teams in their own context, imitation is indeed less likely in teams with strong social and functional ties.

Practical implications of these findings

Together, these findings suggest that teams with strong social and functional ties develop norms that foster behaviour that is beneficial to the team.

Calling in sick is not beneficial to the team, and team members therefore disapprove of this behaviour. Helping each other and standing in for each other is beneficial, and team members thus advocate such cooperative exchange relationships.

In low socially-integrated teams, employees lack such cooperative exchange norms, and norms that keep them from calling in sick are weak.

As a result, employees are more likely to call in sick in response to high co-worker absence in low socially integrated teams.

These results are highly pertinent to the trend toward team designs in organizations.

In an essay concerning some unintended effects of job design, Johns (2010) explains how team designs have sometimes provoked elevated absenteeism or failed to deliver expected gains in attendance, even though such designs have features (e.g., higher social control) that might be expected to facilitate attendance (Harrison et al., 2000).

Coupled with emerging evidence that absence seems to peak in organizational settings with very poor social integration (Johns, 2008), our results suggest that in low socially-integrated teams, members act more strategically, attempting to keep their input equal to peers.

While doing so, however, they focus on their individual interest and not on the team’s interest, wrecking cooperative relationships.

Our study helps identify job designs that mitigate the imitation of such dysfunctional behaviour.

While team members may have the tendency to repay co-workers’ absence by calling in sick, this strategic behaviour can be countered by creating a cohesive team atmosphere and designing projects with high task interdependence.

At the same time, higher social integration fosters team norms that disapprove of absenteeism.

Thus, good job design (i.e., high cohesion, task dependency) can break through the vicious circle in which team members imitate each other’s absence behaviour.

Instead, in such integrated team climates, disapproval absence norms and cooperative relationships evolve making it more likely that team members stand in for each other.


Goetzel, R.Z., Hawkins, K., Ozminkowski, R.J., & Wang, S. (2003). The health and productivity cost burden of the “Top 10” physical and mental health conditions affecting six large U.S. employers in 1999. Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine, 45: 5-14.

Harrison, D.A., Johns, G., & Martocchio, J.J. (2000). Changes in technology, teamwork, and diversity: New directions for a new century of absenteeism research. Research in Personnel and Human Resources Management, 18: 43-91.

Johns, G. (2008). Absenteeism and presenteeism: Not at work or not working well. In C.L. Cooper & J. Barling (Eds.), The Sage handbook of organizational behavior (pp. 160-177). London: Sage.

Johns, G. (2010). Some unintended consequences of job design. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 31: 361-369.

Ten Brummelhuis, L.L., Johns, G., Lyons, B.J., & Ter Hoeven, C.L. (2016). Why and when do employees imitate the absenteeism of co-workers? Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 134: 16-30.

Author Profile Picture
Lieke ten Brummelhuis

Assistant Professor of Management

Read more from Lieke ten Brummelhuis