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When Your Customers Meet Your Sick Employees: Disgust, Fear, Anger, Guilt, and Compassion Result

What is the harm in presenteeism or “sickness presence” when ill employees still go to work? Maybe more harm than employers realize.

(Presenteeism has its own set of problems discussed more in detail in this article.)

What is known about interactions between clients and sick employees? Three things. First, customers have emotional reactions that are by far more negative than positive. Second, those emotional reactions reduce customers’ willingness to refer and willingness to repurchase or return. Third, there are actions that employers can take to remediate the situation for both the sick employee and the affected customers.

Customers Emotional Reactions

It is a natural reflex to avoid coming into contact with disease. When it happens, people often react in the same way – to step back or completely away from the sick person. Customers typically experience negative emotions when interacting with a sick employee – disgust and fear are two of the most common. These emotions are referred to as a “disease avoidance mechanism”[i] and something human beings do for self-protection.

Being compelled to interact with someone who is ill can result in customers feeling angry, viewing the transaction as failing to meet their needs or being treated unfairly. Clients often regard the situation they same way they view “poor service, employee mistakes, or unprofessional behavior.”[ii]

This anger response may be directed at the employer, feeling that the employee is being unfairly treated by being compelled to work, even if it is the employee’s choice to work.

Clients may also feel compassion, an emotion that is viewed as positive; however, in this circumstance, the outcome for the organization may be negative. While a customer may feel sorry for the employee, that customer may want to punish the employer for forcing the employee to come to work sick,[iii] even if the employee chooses to be there.

Impact on Willingness to Refer or Repurchase

Dietz & Zacher’s research demonstrates the relationship between and among these typical emotions of disgust, fear, anger, guilt, and compassion and the unwillingness to refer or repurchase the employer’s good and/or services. Because the interaction is viewed as an emotionally negative experience, customers are often unwilling to recommend others to have the same or similar experience. In short, client interactions with sick employees can have negative consequences for employers as customers decreases the likelihood of recommending or repurchasing.

No one wants sick employees on the job. It is not good for their health, for co-workers[iv] and others who may be exposed to infectious diseases like COVID-19, the flu, and the common cold. The organization itself may be seen in a negative way even if it offers paid sick days and has policies to encourage ill workers to stay home.

Employees may be in a difficult financial situation and need to work so staying home is not a realistic option. Others may have a disease that is not contagious so that working has emotional benefits for them. During the pandemic, businesses have been and continue to be short-staffed. Keeping the doors open may depend on people who are not feeling well.

Solutions to a Difficult Balancing Act

If a sick employee shows up for work, isolating him or her by assigning tasks that do not involve interactions with co-workers and clients is one possibility. Avoiding contact with clients can preserve the customer’s willingness to refer and/or repurchase.[v] Plus it reduces the risk of transmission to others if the disease is contagious.

One of the positive changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic is the adoption of technology including virtual transactions such as self-online check in and mobile keys to reduce contact even with healthy individuals. Introducing innovative technologies and expanding the use of current options can keep employees healthy in general.

The pandemic has also led to more people working from home. If staff are not so sick that they cannot work at home, engaging in work from home is another option.

Keeping staff healthy is the best possible scenario but people do get sick. While it is not always possible to require sick employees to stay home, employers must weigh the pros and cons of having staff available versus the consequences to clients who may view interactions as negative, causing them in turn to refuse to recommend or return.

Learn more about our Healthy Hospitality program to help keep staff and customers healthy.


[i] Dietz & Zacher, Effects of Employee Sickness Presence on Customer Repurchase and Recommendation Intentions: The Role of Customer Affective Reactions. Journal of Business and Psychology, 16 August 2021. [ii] Ibid. [iii] Schultz et al., (2009). The cost and impact of health conditions on presenteeism to employers: A review pf the literature. Pharmaco Economics, 27, 365-378. [iv] Lohaus, D., & Haberman, W. (2019). Presenteeism: A review and Research Directions. Human Resource Management Review, 29, 43-58. [v] Dietz &Zacher.


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