A public airing of grouses among some Singapore Airlines (SIA) cabin crew about the company's medical leave system has unleashed much buzz on social media.
Staff say the scheme is unfair and discourages those who are genuinely ill from taking sick leave. This not only poses a risk to the crew themselves but also to passengers on flights.
How it works is that employees have incentive points that are docked when they submit a medical certificate (MC) for common ailments such as cold and cough. These are considered "casual MCs" as opposed to "non-casual MCs" for more serious ailments.
Everyone starts with 10 points each year, which are progressively cut and all lost once 12 casual MCs are accumulated.
The airline's position is that the MC component makes up 4 to 6 per cent of the annual appraisal and that when it comes to promotions, other factors, including an interview round, are also considered.
Truth is, there are always people in any company who abuse the system to get MCs to escape unpopular duties or to enjoy an extra long weekend.
Singapore Human Resources Institute president Erman Tan said: "It's about balancing the needs of employers, employees and co-workers... When you don't have a certain level of discipline, you need to put more people on standby mode, leading to higher operational costs."
One can well understand that in SIA's case, this could seriously impact operations and inconvenience passengers because flights require a minimum number of crew before they can depart. The rules are set by the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore for safety reasons.
However, a system that docks points is not the best way to deal with the situation.
Such a system creates a perception among staff - whether or not intended by the airline - that the management is out to get them with a demerit points system that punishes those who are genuinely sick.
It is also too broad a stroke, when in effect, the aim should be to weed out and punish those who are actually abusing the system.
Another grouse among staff is whether the person who assesses the MCs is even qualified or medically trained to decide if an ailment is "casual" or not.
SIA's explanation that the MC component makes up just 4 to 6 per cent of appraisal scores is cold comfort. So long as it is considered in the appraisal process, one has to assume that all things being equal, the promotion will go to the employee who took fewer days of medical leave.
Weeding out or identifying crew who abuse the medical leave system would be better achieved by tracking those who take too many MCs, or those who tend to take MCs when activated when on standby duty - a practice that SIA says it already does.
Read also: SIA refutes netizen's claims over MC rules
From SIA's founding chairman J.Y. Pillay to former chairman Stephen Lee, as well as the airline's past and present chief executives whom I have spoken to in my 14 years of aviation reporting, all agree on one thing: SIA is what it is because of the crew it has.
New planes, the best in-flight entertainment systems, the best chefs curating menus, designer amenity kits - can all be copied and bought.
Indeed, over the years, airlines have closed the gap with SIA by investing in new products and planes.
But what can and must set SIA apart from its competitors is the quality of its in-flight service.
SIA runs one of the most rigorous cabin crew training programmes in the industry - a four-month programme which focuses on safety as well as fundamentals of social etiquette, personal grooming and passenger handling skills.
Meal service procedures, including food and wine appreciation courses, are also part of the training.
So highly sought is the airline's service DNA that many cabin crew who have left have gone on to either join other carriers to oversee their cabin crew training programmes or conduct their own training courses.
SIA will do well to better engage its more than 7,000 cabin crew and rethink its current position on its appraisal system.
The need is critical, in an increasingly competitive environment that has put serious pressure on yields and profits that fell by 35.6 per cent in the October to December quarter.
This article was first published on Feb 14, 2017.
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