Absent-minded employees: The 4 key steps to get absenteeism under control … legally

The costs of employee absenteeism—reflected in lost production, overtime and temporary replacements for the absent worker—can add up quickly.

What’s the best way to combat the problem? With a clear policy, careful documentation, consistent application of the policy and progressive discipline.

1. Set a clear policy

Distribute a policy indicating when and under what conditions an employee will be paid (or not paid) for absences. Set a maximum.

The policy should indicate types and stages of discipline that will apply to employees who violate the policy.

Variations include no-fault policies, which count all absences toward an established maximum, or those that differentiate between excused and unexcused absences.

Caution: Some courts have found employers may have to reasonably accommodate an employee’s qualified disability under the ADA regardless of its no-fault absenteeism policy. Also, you can’t count FMLA leave time toward absences under a no-fault policy.

2. Always document absences

Documentation is a cardinal rule in any activity for which an employee may be disciplined. Keep attendance/absence records for all employees.

3. Be consistent

Supervisors should clearly understand their responsibilities for recording absences, counseling chronically absent employees and handing out discipline.

Yet, you must build enough flexibility into your absenteeism policy to allow for special circumstances—inclement weather and so forth. Professional arbitrators often back employees if an attendance policy is so rigid it can’t accommodate unpreventable problems.

Advice: Make it clear to employees that a sick leave or absenteeism policy is not a benefit to be equated with vacation time or personal leave.

4. Use progressive discipline

When you’re faced with an employee who is chronically absent, progressive discipline works best:
  • Oral reprimand. The boss discusses the problem with the employee, stating that attendance must improve. If it does—say, for three months—then wipe the slate clean and expunge the documentation.
  • Written warning. If the problem persists, the supervisor should prepare a memo spelling out the problem, the potential consequences and the time frame. Have the worker sign an acknowledgment of receipt. Put this in the employee’s personnel file and give him or her a copy.
  • Final written warning. If attendance does not improve based on the predetermined rules, deliver a final written warning, perhaps accompanied by probationary status for the employee.
  • Termination review. If the problem persists, HR and the supervisor should sit down to evaluate the full range of discharge-related considerations. Follow through on termination if the facts warrant it.

3 things supervisors can do to help reduce absenteeism

1. Provide outlets for dissent. When people are denied outlets for their job pressures, they tend to run from them. Managers should encourage employees to speak up and act on what they hear.

2. Use incentives and gimmicks.
They’re good only for the short term, but they’re also reusable. Try a departmental contest. Example: the person with the fewest absences in a three-month period wins a gift card.

3. Explain how absenteeism affects everyone.
When people feel easily replaceable, they think they won’t be missed. Each employee is in some way a specialist. Taking time to point this out makes each one feel skilled, valued and needed.