What am I Saying to My Employees about their Attendance?

What am I Saying to My Employees about their Attendance?

One of the best practices you can do as a manager/supervisor is to keep an eye on your employees’ attendance. At least on a quarterly basis, review who has been absent, and for what. Of course in order to do this someone will have had to record this information, accurately and on a timely basis. Many companies collect and record absence information as part of their payroll business process.

Reviewing the attendance/absence information regularly will help you understand who is attending regularly and who is absent on a regular basis, regardless of the reason. It is a great way to identify those employees who come to work on a regular recurring basis and provides you with an opportunity to express your appreciation to them.

The absences recorded could be one of any number – jury duty, bereavement leave, paid or unpaid sick leave, vacation, unpaid leave – whatever. Frequent absences are a good indication that something unusual may be happening in the employee’s world. I urge you to pay attention to this message. It is easy to put off the conversation about this when the employee’s performance is an issue – until you find the straw that breaks the camel’s back! That’s when you want to fire the employee for a laundry list of reasons.

It is also easy to forgive and ignore the need for the conversation when the employee’s performance is stellar but their attendance isn’t. Again, I urge you to pay attention. Should you not have the high absenteeism conversation with your stellar performer, you may be inadvertently shooting yourself in the foot. Your other employees will likely notice that this one employee is getting “special” treatment and this will have a negative impact on their productivity.

Make it a practice at least each quarter to review your employees’ attendance information. Once you have the average number of hours of absence for each group of employees, you will need to identify those whose absenteeism is higher than the average. You may want to just focus on their sick leave usage or you may want to also talk to employees who have higher than average absenteeism for other types of leave.

For our purposes I am only going to talk about sick leave usage. The first step is to determine the average sick leave usage for your employees. You may have to group your employees to ensure that you are being fair to them. For example: if some of your employees work outside and some work in an office, I recommend that you group your employees accordingly. Generally, people who work outside have a higher level of sick leave than office workers because their working conditions are more difficult.

Before you meet with an employee who has higher than average sick leave usage, make sure you have all of the data and that it is accurate. There is nothing worse than telling someone their attendance needs to be improved when in fact their attendance has been excellent. Once you are convinced the data is accurate and complete, invite them to meet with you. When you meet with them be incredibly well prepared with your message – practice, practice.

You want to share information with them. You are not going to shame them nor punish them. You want them to understand your perspective and the impact of their absence on their co-workers and your clients/customers. You want them to do whatever they can to come to work on a regular, recurring basis.

For some employees, this will be a timely reminder that their work is valued by the organization. This may motivate them to work harder to follow their doctor’s orders. For others, this may be a difficult message to receive.  They know their absence is impacting their co-workers and their clients/customers but they are dealing with health issues that are very complex, the health care system is very frustrating and they are doing their best to regain their health!

For others, the message may be difficult to receive for other reasons. Some people call in sick when in fact, they are more than capable of attending work that day. Perhaps they have family demands that they must attend to and the simplest thing to do is “take a sick day”. Perhaps their health issue is self-inflicted – too much TV, too much hockey, too many late nights. When employees take a sick day when they are not sick, there is little difference between this and stealing a chair from their employer. But unless we have proof positive that they have “stolen” the sick leave, you must presume they were actually sick. Innocent until proven guilty is the way forward. For these folks, having the conversation about their inability to attend work regularly is a clear message that their attendance is something that is being monitored. Most employees are “quick” learners who improve their attendance immediately.

When you meet with them the first time do not get into a discussion about their medical issue. Do not offer advice. Show them the information you have on their absenteeism. Tell them the average sick leave usage for the group but do not show them anyone else’s information. You want them to know that their rate of absenteeism is amongst the highest, their absence is impacting their co-workers and the service delivery and it is their responsibility to do whatever to regain their health. Give them a chance to respond but do not permit them to share the details of their medical condition. Express your confidence in their ability to be able to improve their attendance. Ask them how you can help them with this. Book another meeting with them in two – four weeks’ time to see how they are doing.

When you are getting ready to meet with them the second time, again, be incredibly well prepared. Make sure your information is accurate and complete. Should you discover that the employee has made huge progress in their ability to attend work on a regular basis, get ready to congratulate them! Again, agree to meet with them in the near future – perhaps 4 – 6 weeks later. After two or three months of steady improvement, there may no longer be a need to meet with them on this topic.

Should you discover a month after your first meeting with the employee that there is little or no improvement, get ready to convince them that you mean business. You will follow the same agenda as the first meeting. You will also tell them that their employment could be jeopardized if their attendance does not improve. It is basically the same song, second verse, a little bit louder and a little bit worse. You follow the meeting up with a letter that basically echoes what you said in the meeting. You want them to understand that you are not going to drop this issue.  Again you agree to meet with them in 2 – 4 weeks. In the third meeting you repeat the same message. You elaborate what you mean by their employment being jeopardized. You include all of this in the second letter. And the process continues.

There may be slight variances to the process depending whether or not the employee has sound medical documentation explaining why they cannot attend work regularly. This is often very difficult to obtain and, as mentioned in a previous blog, may mean that you will have to ask the employee to attend the company’s physician/specialist before you get the information you require to make a decision on the employee’s continued employment. Again, whether it is a written or unwritten agreement, when an employee is hired, it is with the understanding that they will attend work on a regular, recurring basis. If the employee cannot do that, the employment contract is deemed frustrated and can be terminated.

Before you terminate an employee for excessive absenteeism, you will have to consider how the courts will respond should this make it in front of a judge. The judge will want you to prove that you gave clear direction to the employee about the consequences of their absenteeism. The judge will want access to the medical information, to read the medical opinion as to the cause for the absenteeism, the duration, the prognosis for recovery and so on. The judge will want to see that you have given the employee ample time (a year) to regain their health. The judge will want to see that you accommodated the employee to the point of undue hardship.  Should the judge not be satisfied with the way this was handled, the employee could well be reinstated with back pay.


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