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Treat Employees With Decency

Wed., Oct. 9, 1996, midnight

Suppose you own a business and one of your employees is diagnosed with cancer. What do you do?

Fire her? After all, she might become less productive while she’s fighting the disease. And her medical bills might jack up the cost of your company’s experience-rated group health insurance policy.

It would take one hard-boiled number-cruncher to kick an ill employee while she’s down.

And yet, some businesses do exactly that, according to a study by Working Woman magazine and Amgen, a manufacturer of drugs that lessen the side effects of chemotherapy.

The study interviewed survivors of cancer as well as their employers and co-workers. It found that one in 14 cancer survivors was fired or laid off. Among all American workers, only one in 80 is let go.

Statistics do generalize, and behind numbers like those are a wide range of circumstances. Surely, many employers do strive to keep ailing employees on the payroll, dropping them only when it’s clear the employee just can’t continue the work that the company has to have done. But between that end of the scale and the brutal discharge some employees reported, there is room - and reason - for improvement.

More and more cancer patients enjoy a full recovery and do not, in fact, feel as sick during chemotherapy as supervisors assume, the study found. Modern drugs reduce nausea, and the administration of treatment on a Friday allows a weekend for recovery before returning to work.

Workplace morale has a huge effect on productivity - for better or for worse. Those who treat employees with decency get loyalty and dedication in return. No employee or supervisor knows who may face an alarming diagnosis next. And all workers experience ups and downs; some of the nation’s toughest chief executive officers, The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday, suffer from manic-depressive illness that makes them a terror one day and a basket case the next. Could it be that the cold demands of life at the bottom line exact a personal cost?

When ailing employees do stay on the job and recover, they report that the routines of work actually help them survive the trauma and emerge again at full capacity. That’s a win-win outcome.

This is never an easy problem to solve, but those who solve it badly face one more risk: lawsuits and demands for the heavy hand of government regulation to intervene. That would be a sign of failure - a failure to recognize, voluntarily, that it’s good business to treat employees well.

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Webster/For the editorial board

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