Workplace Absences: A “Little Thing” That’s A Big Challenge

For many employers, employee absences can be a big challenge.

On paper, this should not be a major problem for a good organization. Enough redundancy should be built into the system so that one missing worker doesn’t bring everything to a halt. But it’s never that simple.

Workers Missing

Getting your organization’s work done with gaps in your staff can be a big challenge.

These are instances where workers arrive late, leave early or entirely miss a day. Obviously, a “perfect” employee would never do that, but this is not a perfect world and employees are not perfect, either. They have health issues, family crises and other problems that legitimately demand their attention. In many cases, the distractions can be so great they might as well not be at work anyway.

Good managers understand this. They’ve hired human beings, not robots, and some personal issues are to be expected. One of the measurements of a well-run operation is that the absence of one person, especially for a short while, is not catastrophic.

What does cause problems is when these absences are not scheduled to a reasonable degree. When managers have some notice, they can obtain a replacement or otherwise cover the absence. Best practices suggest that some cross training has occurred so that the absence is not a major disruption. Planned absences can usually be accommodated, but unplanned absence and tardiness usually cannot be. Even if the absence or lateness is justified by circumstance, it still creates a hardship and affects the bottom line of the company. This is what I call an unexcused absence and, especially if it occurs with any regularity, it’s a problem.

Not surprisingly, some of these can be indicative of behavioral issues that may go beyond the ability of any manager or business owner. But while managers may not be able to solve a problem, they can deal with it in a way that reduces the personal aspect of their decisions and policies. In simple language, I suggest the development of a clearly communicated policy that helps them avoid being caught out by what are often last minute requests.

The gist of my recommendation is that managers establish a matrix defining the number of unexcused absences by an employee. When an unexcused absence occurs, the employee will be paid via his or her sick time or “paid time off” bank account. The employee will be paid, but points can be assigned or some other method of keeping track of these unexcused absences will be assessed and done so in a way that will make them clearly aware of the cost. Next, a limit should be established and once the employee reaches that limit, disciplinary action should commence. The disciplinary action need not be draconian; it should fit the “crime,” but by giving the employee an incentive he or she will hopefully address the absences before more serious action needs to be taken.

For all of this to work, it obviously must be communicated in advance. I tell clients they should publish their perception that unplanned or unexcused absences create a hardship and should be eliminated as much as possible. I do not recommend that managers publish their matrix, however. That often just opens the door for certain employees “to play the system.” Simply publish your expectation for excellence. If it is not delivered, a consequence should be forthcoming. If a manager says no more than four instances will be tolerated, then three instances will be the limit before action is taken.

Working with employees who attempt to schedule personal issues is also part of the equation. There must be, and should be, both a carrot and a stick for this to work!

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