Absentee Problem? Here’s how to clarify your leave policy

Mary was furious with Paul, one of the customer service phone reps she supervised. He had called in sick again, forcing the other employees to pick up the slack. Paul was averaging one sick day every two weeks. It simply wasn’t fair. “Please get Paul on the phone for me,” Mary said to one of her staff.

As she sat angrily at her desk, she thought about how she would let Paul have it for showing so little respect for his colleagues. But then she had a sudden doubt. What, legally, could she say to Paul? Would the fact that she had called him at all mean that she was harassing him? Suppose she fired Paul, and he sued for harassment? Would she be fired-and all because she was trying to manage as effectively as she knew how?

Many employers get caught up in a cycle of repeated attempts to reform these types. That’s a mistake because the costs of employee absenteeism-reflected in lost production, overtime and temporary replacements for the absent worker-can add up quickly. In fact, some personnel experts estimate that an absent employee costs a company 1.75 to 2.5 times his daily salary. Some large companies estimate that absenteeism may be costing them more than $500,000 per year.

How can companies combat the problem? Approaches vary, but most successful absenteeism programs start with a clearly enunciated company policy.

Set a clear policy
Frequently, absenteeism problems arise because a company has no clear policy on the issue. A company policy statement should be distributed to all employees, indicating when and under what conditions an employee will be paid (or not paid) for absences.

Determinations can be based on average absence rates for a company or industry based on a survey of what other companies offer. Variations include no-fault policies, which count as absences toward an established maximum, or those that differentiate between excused and unexcused absences.

The policy should indicate types and stages of discipline that will apply to employees who violate the policy, as well as positive measures and awards that will accrue for individuals or departments that meet zero-absence targets.

Caution: Realize that an employee discharged under a no-fault attendance policy may be eligible to collect unemployment benefits. In addition, be aware that no-fault absentee policies could violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Some courts have found that an employer might have to reasonably accommodate an employee’s qualified disability under the ADA regardless of its no-fault absentee policy. Also, you cannot count FMLA leave time in determining whether a threshold number of absences has been reached under a no-fault policy.