Ethical Educator

Deceptive Illness
School Administrator, September 2020

Scenario: One of two support personnel in the superintendent’s office announces she has a medical condition that would leave her vulnerable to contracting the COVID-19 virus. She takes a four-month medical leave, leading to most of her duties being added to the colleague’s platter. When she returns to work, it’s discovered she faked the medical claim, yet is allowed to return to her job. The office colleague feels betrayed by the deception and the inaction of the administration. Should some action be taken?

Max McGee:

To paraphrase a famed maxim: Failure (to act) is not an option! The deception merits immediate disciplinary action. While the gut reaction may be to terminate the office staff member, the superintendent should consider a range of other options including written reprimand, suspension with or without pay, demotion, reassignment or some combination of these. By betraying her colleague, she likely irreparably damaged the relationship that will result in lower morale and productivity. 

If the faked claim was a first offense, a stern written reprimand and reassignment to another department coupled with a demotion would be an appropriate response. If there were past similar offenses, a written reprimand and suspension without pay or termination would certainly be warranted.

Shelley Berman:

Medical and personnel issues should remain confidential. Only management and the individual have a right to know what was involved in this situation, whether the leave was faked, and, if so, what action was taken to address the falsification. On the surface, lying to secure a medical leave is a fraudulent act and should result in termination. It not only put additional burden on her colleague but cost the district four months’ salary. 

It appears there were multiple management failures in the superintendent’s office. Vulnerability to COVID-19 doesn’t necessitate a leave when the individual could work at home. If her duties required presence in the office, the superintendent could have distributed them among personnel and assigned the individual other tasks that could be done at home. In addition, the superintendent could have provided temporary office help to reduce the burden on remaining staff. Another mistake was not requiring medical certification prior to or at the beginning of the leave, thereby potentially preventing the lengthy absence. 

Lack of termination could indicate a failure by management to hold the individual accountable. However, the colleague should not assume that the leave wasn’t necessary or that consequences weren’t imposed. Perhaps there were consequences that others are not aware of or there was another explanation for leave that requires confidentiality.

Regardless, the superintendent’s mismanagement has now been exacerbated by leaving ambiguity around how a person could retain employment after faking medical leave. If the leave was legitimate, once aware of the office friction the superintendent should take immediate action to address rumors and allay staff concerns while protecting confidentiality.

If the superintendent does not act, the colleague faces a difficult choice: either remain silent or raise questions about the superintendent’s management and potentially jeopardize her position and relationship with the superintendent. Silence won’t heal the division between these two employees or restore trust in the superintendent. The colleague could speak with the district’s HR director. The HR director may not be able to reveal the circumstances around the leave or the actions taken, but could hear the colleague’s concerns and either reassure her that appropriate action was taken or follow up with an investigation without identifying who brought this matter to the HR department’s attention.

Maggie Lopez:

The coworker who faked her illness should have been asked to resign or been dismissed. The woman works in the superintendent’s office and continues to represent the superintendent, whose credibility has now been compromised. This decision is sure to raise questions and eyebrows throughout the district.

Whatever decision the superintendent makes, this is a professional and political nightmare for the coworker. Ultimately, it was the superintendent who approved reinstatement of the employee who lied. This puts her in a vulnerable position because she would be questioning her boss’ decision. She could try talking to Human Resources, but she will probably not get much information because it is a personnel issue. She’s stuck between a rock and a hard place. 

There must be something going on legally or politically that made the superintendent give approval to allow this employee to return to her job. I would guess HR would have made a recommendation for dismissal in light of the woman’s actions. Did the superintendent decide to use his position to override such a recommendation and ignore the lack of trust that this kind of decision will create among staff? Although the decision is baffling, the coworker may never know the reasoning behind it.  

When actions make no logical sense or, as in this case, there is a vacuum of information as to why the woman was allowed to return to her job, others will make up stories and start rumors to explain what happened. This could result in character assassination for both the employee and superintendent.   

MaryEllen Elia:

I don’t blame the colleague for feeling deceived — after all, she was deceived. I can’t think of an instance in any context where faking a medical claim is not unacceptable and unethical at the least, if not legally fraudulent. In this case, I must believe that employee policy is clear around medical claims, related leaves and all of the compensation and other details surrounding these. The redistribution of work during an employee’s absence is common practice, but an absence taken on false pretenses that unfairly burdens coworkers is sure to create feelings of betrayal and resentment among staff. 

So then how to handle such a mess. If the staff member is allowed back to work, I would hope that a well-documented review of all of the facts surrounding this issue takes place followed by some resultant action — a letter in the employee’s file detailing missteps and the terms around future discipline/dismissal, transfer to another (lesser) position, etc. But if no action is taken, then the staff is undermined, sending the wrong message around what is permissible and eroding the culture of the workplace. 

If we graciously give this misguided employee the full benefit of the doubt — that perhaps she had genuine fears around contracting COVID-19 that caused her to take such a drastic step in faking the claim — it still feels like quite a stretch. Why not first discuss her concerns with her manager at the very least? The logic appears to break down quickly, but again, best to collect the facts and follow where they lead.


Each month, School Administrator draws on actual circumstances to raise an ethical decision-making dilemma in K-12 education. Our distinguished panelists provide their own resolutions to each dilemma. Do you have a suggestion for a dilemma to be considered? Send it to:

The Ethical Educator panel consists of Shelley Berman, superintendent, Andover, Mass.; MaryEllen Elia, senior fellow, International Center for Leadership in Education and retired superintendent; Maggie Lopez, retired superintendent in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Glenn "Max" McGee, a former superintendent and regional president of Hazard, Young, Attea, and Associates in Schaumburg, Ill.