Last reviewed 7 July 2016

Absenteeism is here to stay, try as we may, but this is no reason to accept your current absence levels. You should not assume that there is nothing you can do, but nor should you take a knee-jerk reaction when your patience runs out. The whole issue requires careful management, which probably means spending a couple of hours discussing the problem with your management colleagues, says Bob Patchett.

A useful way of examining the topic is to take three approaches: managing absence, controlling absenteeism and managing attendance. For this purpose, absence is an employee being away from work for legitimate or agreed reason, absenteeism is an employee who should be at work but is not, and attendance management is you taking actions to match your employees with your work needs.

Employees have several rights to be away from work, but there is much you can do to minimise disruption. A first remedy is to ensure that if someone is absent, planned or otherwise, his or her work can continue, and you do this by training your employees as far as you reasonably can to cover effectively for absent colleagues. You may well have to discuss this with your employees and even negotiate an arrangement to make this work. Although employees are entitled to holidays, you can exercise some control over when they take them; for example, you may ban holidays during particularly busy periods provided that your demands are not socially unreasonable. New recruits should be made fully aware of this before they agree to join you. Also you may need a system to ensure that not too many people are away at the same time. Employees have rights to time off for other reasons such as family emergencies and public duties, so exercise some control by, for example, agreeing convenient times for these absences and, in the case of emergencies, indicating the length of time you would expect the employee to be away so that they have a broad guideline.

Controlling absenteeism is a serious management matter. Employees should not absent themselves from work without good reason and, when appropriate, without notifying you promptly of the absence and how long it is likely to last. If you fail to take firm and prompt action against unexpected absences, you will signal that absenteeism is not a serious problem, and good time-keepers will feel, and maybe show in some way, their resentment. A well proven successful way to deal with absenteeism is a skilfully conducted return-to-work interview. However, if you choose to apply this approach only to suspected malingerers, then you run the risk of showing favouritism or, worse, committing unlawful discrimination. Also you miss an opportunity of showing your concern for an employee who took time off to deal with a domestic problem.

Therefore, anyone returning from unplanned absence should be required to obtain from you a reason-for-absence form and complete it in your presence. This may be in a corner of your office while you get on with something else, or somewhere in the wider workplace but within your sight. Completing a form in the manager’s presence does seem to bring a greater level of honesty. When the form is complete, go through it with the employee and question everything that you cannot totally accept. Obviously, the two most important questions are the reason for the absence and its length. If you are satisfied with the answers given, you have the opportunity to express a wish that the employee, for example, is fully recovered or has overcome the problem. You may wish to comment on the employee’s excellent attendance record. However, you may not be fully satisfied that the employee was genuinely ill or that the length of absence was appropriate.

In such cases, you can counsel the employee that he or she needs to take action to avoid a recurrence by, for example, not leaving a long journey home until the last moment or keeping off strong drink the night before work. Do not hesitate from asking about a claimed illness. Did you see a doctor? If not, did you consult a pharmacist? Which one? What medicine did you take? You may offer to have these questions posed by a member of the same gender if that is not you. You should not, and indeed are not qualified, to go into medical detail, but the answers you receive will give enough information to enable you to assess whether the absence was necessary. Do, of course, keep a confidential note of the answers as evidence of why you reached your decision.

If you are not satisfied with the answers given, you may feel that disciplinary action is required, in which case collect the evidence and tell the employee that a disciplinary interview will take place. You may feel it prudent to have another manager conduct that interview with you presenting the evidence.

Return-to-work interview must be handled skilfully, therefore, if you yourself will not conduct them, you need to train the people who will. Although a senior manager or a personnel officer may be better in some ways, the immediate manager has got more at stake from absenteeism because he or she will be personally inconvenienced, and this will have more impact if that manager carries out the interview. These interviews must be carried out consistently. Employees are required contractually to attend work unless they have permission to be absent or have good reason to be so; therefore, the return-to-work interview is an important management obligation. It is also an excellent and well-tried method for keeping absenteeism — and operating costs — low.

Managing attendance is an under-rated management technique. Essentially, it requires you to do all that you can to make your employees want to come to work. First, make sure that the environment in which they work is as pleasant as you can make it. Can the draughts, the temperature, the noise levels be improved? Can employees be provided with more comfortable chairs and tools because a major reason for absence is back trouble? Are they adequately trained? Are you sure that they are free from harassment? Another major reason for absence is stress, so make sure that you have a harassment policy and that its application is closely monitored. Ensure that your employees understand the purpose of the organisation, its changing environments, and its current problems and successes. Make clear to them the importance of their own role. The labourer who tells his or her family that the organisation could not operate without him or her may well be exaggerating, but he or she is likely to struggle to work even with a heavy cold. Do be sure to tour your workforce regularly, paying compliments when they are deserved and occasionally asking after their families.

Finally, consider if you really need all your employees all the time? If, for example, you have a slack period, why not consider asking for volunteers who might like to have time off at reduced pay? A novel idea maybe, but absence need not always be bad.

A high absenteeism level is a sign of poor management — so get your colleagues together, put on your thinking caps, and develop strategies for maintaining a properly staffed organisation.