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Part I: Identifying the Problem

By Shari Barnes

Many employers are faced with a subtle but significant drain on profits this time of year. Employees who are habitually absent from work can cost a company hundreds or thousands of dollars in lost productivity.

according to USA Today
Employers are losing millions of dollars as unscheduled absences reach their highest levels in seven years, a survey of 401 human-resource officials found.
  • Dollars lost to absenteeism have jumped 32% since last year, or nearly $4 million for a large company. But instead of illness, family issues now are the most often-cited reason for time off. Other non-sickness reasons cited: stress and personal demands.
  • Employee absenteeism jumped 25% since last year, according to the survey of absences from June, 1997, to May, 1998, by CCH, a provider of human resources and employment-law information.
  • The annual average cost of absenteeism rose from $572 per employee to as high as $757 in 1998, the survey said. The cost was figured from the employees' pay and did not include such indirect costs as paying other workers overtime or hiring temporary workers.
  • Companies of all sizes reported mounting costs for unplanned time off, but midsize firms were especially hard hit.
  • Obviously the figures above create a compelling "big picture". Repeatedly calling in sick on Fridays, Mondays, or the day before and after a holiday are common, and should raise suspicions of policy abuse. Most companies have written policies about attendance, including options for disciplinary action when the rules are broken, but we all know abuses still occur. Acknowledging the problem and understanding the reasons for excessive absences during the holiday season can help employers avoid the frustration and scheduling headaches that can make you feel the North Pole could be a good place to have an office.

    How do you know you have an absenteeism problem? Are you a statistic? Most companies don't know either. One reason is that many employers keep inadequate records. Unfortunately, poorly designed attendance policies can spark costly lawsuits down the road. Start tracking all of your staff absences NOW, before you think there is a problem. This means tracking all absences, including vacation, sick leave, unexcused absences, funeral leave, and family leave. This will give you two important snapshots of your company: what portion of your annual work hours represent paid and unpaid absences; and which employees are abusing your current absentee policy.

    OK, now you know how much absenteeism you have in your ranks. But how do you know how much absenteeism is too much? When does legitimate use of sick leave turn into abuse?

    Experts suggest watching for a pattern of three. For example, if an employee has missed one day a month for three consecutive months, that amounts to 12 paid holidays a year, in addition to their normal holiday and vacation schedule. These are costly hours. These employees may be candidates for counseling.

    Of course, communication can work wonders before an employee falls into chronic absenteeism. As part of your policy, require that anyone arriving late, or missing a day, file a statement describing the reason. This accountability can help remind employees of the importance you place on attendance. If the problem already exists, communication is still the key. Point out the problem to the employee in a factual way. In many cases, employees may not realize how much time they have taken off. They probably haven't kept records of the days they spent at home. If you have, then you will be able to detail the absences.

    Invite them into your office, show them the actual record, and ask if they are experiencing any problems that they would like to talk about. They may blow it off, or give you a lame excuse, but it allows them to see you are aware of the matter and that you care.

    Here are some general tips to keep in mind:
  • Avoid the temptation to let things slide. Managers who do nothing discover that attendance only worsens because when chronic absentees are not punished, other employees receive a subliminal message that it's "okay" to miss work.
  • Address the issue broadly in the company newsletter or perhaps during regularly scheduled departmental meetings.
  • Is a group meeting in your department called for? Collect some facts and figures on actual costs of absenteeism to the department and to the government, including related costs as well as direct costs, to drive home the seriousness of the problem.
  • Check your departmental record with that of other departments. Is yours out of line? Where does the basic fault lie? Turn the mirror on yourself! Are you managing this area?
  • Let employees know it makes a difference when they are not at work . . . recognize it every time it happens.
  • Always insist on prompt notification when someone in your department must be absent unexpectedly.
  • Insist on prior discussion about necessary absences for personal reasons, rather than explanations after the fact.
  • Assess the "Blue Monday" situation in your department? Keep a running record of absences on Monday or the day after each holiday, compared with absences on the best-attendance day (which will probably be payday!). The difference is a good indicator of "phony" absenteeism.
  • Avoid crises due to unexpected absences by having standard operating procedures and standard backstop procedures: who is to be kept informed of what details, who is to pinch-hit for whom. This will ease stress for both you and your employees.
  • Have heart-to-heart discussions with the ones who cause most of your absentee problems. See if there are personal problems on which counsel by you or someone else can help.
  • Know your employees. Without prying, show an interest in them and what makes them tick.
  • Look at the work-load in your department. Work demands are one reason for the rise in absenteeism. With lower unemployment rates, workers are finding themselves stressed by intensified productivity demands. Layoffs also are forcing employers to do more with less. Is this happening at you company?

  • If you're past the point of nipping it in the bud, and your workplace is already plagued with chronic absenteeism, it may be the result of two factors. First, failure to address the problem may have encouraged more employees to abuse the system. You can solve that problem by putting into place, or clarifying your policy on absenteeism, including both acceptable and unacceptable cases. However, it is also possible that employees are staying home because they are disillusioned about their working environment. If this is the case, ask in an interview if they are dissatisfied with some aspect of their job. Do they have a problem with their coworkers or supervisors?

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    Sharon (Shari) Eurich Barnes is Director of Employee Relations for Texas Christian University. Complementing her human resource career, Ms. Barnes writes for numerous publications, including the New York Times, Working Mother, Women as Managers and Management Review. She also conducts private and court-ordered mediations.

    In addition to hosting Books in Review on cable television, Ms. Barnes speaks on employment issues for professional associations and conferences.

    Ms. Barnes received her Bachelor's degree from California Baptist University and Master's degree from Texas Christian University. Among other affiliations, she is a member of the Society for Human Resource Management, American Society for Training and Development, American Association of University Women, Fort Worth Human Resource Association Board of Directors (past), College and University Personnel Association, Fort Worth Mayor's Committee for Disabled Persons, and Tarrant County Association of Mediators Board of Directors. Ms. Barnes has also been named to Who's Who Among American Women.

    Comments and questions about this article: Shari Barnes.

    The opinions expressed in articles by this author do not necessarily represent the opinions of MindData. These articles are provided as a means of informing you of current events and opinions that impact employers and the workplace.

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