Workers habitually absent or unfashionably late?

employee absenceEmployers have heard all the excuses. My alarm didn’t go off. My car broke down. My babysitter didn’t show up. I have a terrible cold. Though sometimes those excuses for being absent or late ring true, chronic absenteeism and tardiness can become a major problem in the workplace, wreaking havoc on productivity as well as morale.

You would think that getting an em­­ployee to show up on time, every day, would be a simple matter. But these days, you really can’t simply say, “Be here or be fired” when an employee walks through the door late or not at all. Especially when you throw in legal factors such as the Americans with Dis­­a­­bil­­i­­ties Act (ADA) and the Family and Medi­­cal Leave Act (FMLA).

For this reason, employers have to employ strategies that not only combat absenteeism, but also keep on the right side of the legal line.

Keep it legal

The following list of questions will help keep you on the right track. Add to its value by making a copy and distributing it to all decision-making supervisors.

  • Do you have a clear understanding of your attendance policies?
  • Do your employees understand how they are to report absences?
  • Do you enforce your policies consistently?
  • Do you understand and follow state and federal laws concerning absences for jury duty?
  • Do you consider all the provisions of the FMLA before charging an employee with an absence?
  • Do you consider religious accommodation requirements before charging employees with unexcused absences?
  • Do you consider the provisions of the ADA concerning absences for drugs, alcohol or medical treatments?
  • Do you review attendance records regularly to pinpoint trends?
  • Do you track absences to see if they show a particular pattern, such as fre­­­quent absences on Mondays or Fri­­days, or the day before or after a holiday?
  • Do you confront employees early when a pattern of absenteeism first develops?
  • Do you spell out the penalties for absenteeism completely and ask employees if they understand them?­­

Do’s & don’ts of discipline

When it comes to disciplining an em­­ployee for absenteeism, there are several different strategies at your disposal. And deciding which one to take isn’t always cut and dried. You can avoid making disciplinary mistakes that could lead your company to court by checking out the following do’s and don’ts.

√  DO figure out what is an acceptable level of absences, if your organization does not specify a maximum number. Think about how many days an em­­ployee could miss without significantly sacrificing work quality.

×  DON’T penalize employees who have a legal reason to be late or absent, e.g., they’re going to physical therapy or alcohol treatment, or have permission to leave early for a doctor’s appointment. The same goes for employees who have a legitimate reason to be late or absent, e.g., using company benefits they have earned, like personal days.

√  DO make sure you understand what’s off-limits and who gets the last word on any gray areas that may be in dispute in any policy that affects attendance.

×  DON’T undermine your company’s absenteeism policy by ignoring any step that isn’t convenient. It can lead to charges that you applied the rules in an arbitrary or discriminatory manner.

√  DO recognize the difference between the employee who was out one day all year—even if you suspect it wasn’t for a good reason—and the employee who has a chronic problem. Adjust your discipline accordingly.

×  DON’T get bent out of shape if an employee challenges your interpretation of any policy that deals with attendance. Work it out.

√  DO begin documenting absences as soon as you notice a trend. Record dates, hours absent, and the reason the employee gives for them.

×  DON’T put employees in the impossible situation of choosing their jobs over their health or family responsibilities. That could be a violation of the FMLA.

Tackling tardiness

Employees who are chronically tardy can cause just as many problems as employees who don’t show up at all. Shifts can get backed up, co-workers may be forced to work overtime, customers could be left in the lurch, and all of this can cost your company cash. Not to mention it could sap morale if other workers have to do extra work to make up for an overdue employee.

Use the following tips when you’re faced with a chronically late employee:

  • Talk with the employee after every late arrival, giving him or her a chance to explain the reason.
  • Counsel employees who are excessively tardy to try to pinpoint what is causing the problem.
  • Put all comments—yours and the employee’s—in writing, regardless of whether disciplinary action is taken.
  • Warn employees that continued late arrivals can lead to termination or other disciplinary actions.
  • Be sure to distinguish between excused and unexcused tardiness in your rec­­ords. For example, if an employee warns you the day before that he or she will be late the next day because of a doctor’s appointment, it should not be counted against him or her. Whereas an unexpected late arrival with an ex­­cuse such as oversleeping should be subject to appropriate discipline.
  • Explain that unexcused tardiness has a negative effect on performance appraisals which affects raises, promotions, and continued employment.
  • Spell out penalties for excessive ­tardiness completely and be sure employees understand them.
  • Set improvement goals and dates for when you expect to see improvement in their ability to arrive on time.
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