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Managing Absenteeism and Lateness in the Workplace

01 Apr 2013

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NLC


By Linda Eroke

Unscheduled absenteeism and lateness to work rates have risen to high levels in the workplace in recent years, and this has continued to be of great concern to employers, who view the practices as counter-productive.
More worrisome is the fact that many of the best employees are not in their places of work at 8:00am when they are expected to resume work.


A recent survey on reasons why employees report late to work, conducted by CareerBuilder.com, showed that 15 per cent of workers are late for work at least once a week. The number is down from 16 per cent in 2009 and 20 per cent in 2008. They speculate that the reduced late for work percentages are due to the global economic recession, which had significantly trimmed down the number of the workforce in the last five years.


According to the survey, reasons given by employees for being late for work ranged from the expected - to the unexpected and this include “delayed by traffic”, which accounts for 30 per cent, while lack of sleep represents 19 per cent.


Other reasons why employees report late for work, according to the report, are bad weather, public transportation problems, wardrobe issues, or delay in getting kids to the daycare or school.


Susan Heathfield, a human resource expert in an article on ‘Why Employees Come Late for Work’ said employees are in the habit of fabricating lots of strange, wild, and crazy excuses about why they came late to work.


“I've dealt with lots of strange, fabricated, wild, and crazy excuses about why employees came late to work. One of my best ever was the afternoon shift employee who claimed that her grandfather's funeral had run much longer than expected - forgetting that this was the third grandfather whose funeral attendance she had claimed.


“Another employee had to borrow money for gas, perhaps not so crazy in that his wages were being garnished at the max. A brave employee said that he was so hung over that he had to stop for breakfast,” she said.


Also, for those employees who do not report to work on a particular day, the most common reason given is as a result of ill health. What continues to be of most concern is that almost two out of three employees who don’t show up for work claim to be sick but in the actual fact this is not usually the case.


With this topic come a lot of grey areas and different ways of thinking especially when viewed from individual opinions. While some called for disciplinary action to be taken by management, they stressed that jobs are still hard to find and the market is very competitive and as such employees should not be excused for reporting late to work.


This group maintained that if an employee is late to work, not only is it disrespectful but it slows down production. They argued that “there are reasons that your boss wants you to work specific hours, just because you may not be aware of them does not mean they are not important. And when an employee comes, the next step is either give him query, suspension or termination due to their strict rules on being late”.


Another group stressed the need for management to find out the real reason behind employees continuous lateness and absence to work. They argued that somehow employers the world over conveniently forget that their employees could be overworked and might have a “life” outside work. They further argued that workers are no longer enthusiastic about their job.


This, they said, may be because they were asked to work overtime without their consent and in most cases, they are afraid to decline in order to keep their job, because they don’t enjoy what they are doing, they don’t have enough support or help from co-workers, team or even boss, the work hours are too strict or too much or that they have not had a chance to take a proper vacation.


Some who are indifferent about the issue observed that it all depends on the environment an employee works in and his commitment to the job. They argued that many of the best employees are not in their office at 8:00 a.m. every day, but their work is done, and it’s done well.


“They are at the meetings they need to attend and they are on time. They are also the ones who are available after hours to help with business related emergencies when need be. To generalise this across all working situations in today’s day and age is naive”, they stated.


Some also argued that most companies exist to make profit and not to provide some kind of social welfare or bend over backwards to accommodate the lifestyle need of their employees. This, they explained, is not to say that companies cannot try to create a work environment that makes employees want to be there on time “but, the point is”, they do not have to. In some cases, they can’t afford to let everyone come in whenever they feel like it.


These individuals are however in 100 per cent agreement that being on time is essential. However, they argued that for other roles and environments, it may not be as critical to push that when it is not essential as this could disengage a good employee particularly when management try to micro manage their time.

Managing Absenteeism

However, human resource experts have stressed the need for supervisors to effectively manage the issue of absenteeism or lateness such that the workplace will not suffer.


According to Dr. Stefani Yorges, a leadership consultant, for most companies, the responsibility for managing absenteeism has fallen primarily on immediate supervisors. These supervisors, she said, are often the only people who are aware that a certain employee is absent.


“They are in the best position to understand the circumstances surrounding an individual’s absence and to notice a problem at an early stage. Therefore, their active involvement in the company’s absence procedures is pivotal to the overall effectiveness and future success of an absence policy or programme,” she stated.


Sadly, however, Yorges observed that most supervisors have not received any guidance or training in managing absenteeism, adding that “They have been left on their own to carry out the often unpopular task of identifying, confronting and resolving absence abuse”.


To ensure that supervisors are comfortable and competent in their role of managing absenteeism, she stressed the need for them to have the full support of senior management. “All parties must be aware of the aim of absence policies and procedures. Should there be discrepancies between departments; a policy can lose its effectiveness.


“To provide more consistency, supervisors should be trained in their responsibilities about managing absenteeism, advised how to conduct effective return-to-work interviews, and educated in the use of disciplinary procedures when necessary”, she added.

Responsibilities of the Supervisor

Yorges listed other critical actions that supervisors need to take to manage absenteeism in addition to ensuring that work is appropriately covered during the employee’s absence. These include:

* They should ensure that all employees are fully aware of the organisation’s policies and procedures for dealing with absence,
* They should be the first point of contact when an employee phones in sick,
* maintain appropriately detailed, accurate, and up-to-date absence records for their staff members, (e.g., date, nature of illness/reason for absence, expected return to work date, doctor’s certification if necessary),
* identify any patterns or trends of absences which cause concern,
* conduct return-to-work interviews, and
* implement disciplinary procedures where necessary

Speaking further, she maintained that the training of supervisors in how to best manage absenteeism should include instruction on how to conduct effective and fair return-to-work interviews. He noted that recent national surveys indicate that these interviews are regarded as one of the most effective tools for managing short-term absenteeism.


“The return-to-work discussion will enable the supervisor to welcome the employee back to work, in addition to demonstrating management’s strong commitment to controlling and managing absenteeism in the workplace. The interview will enable a check to be made that the employee is well enough to return to work.


“The necessary paperwork can be completed, so that the absence and its conclusion are properly recorded. The fact that an established procedure is in place to investigate and discuss absence with an employee may, on its own, act as a deterrent for non-attendance for disingenuous reasons,” she added.


She stressed that the interviews should be carried out as promptly as possible following the absentee’s return to work (no later than one day after his or her return). The employee, he added, should be given ample opportunity to outline the reasons for his or her absence even as she maintained that the supervisor should use the interview as a time to explore any issues that the employee may have which are leading to absence.


The goal, she stated, is to foster an open and supportive culture, adding that the procedures are in place to make sure that help and advice is offered when needed and to ensure that the employee is fit to return to work.
“Employees will usually appreciate the opportunity to explain genuine reasons for absence within a formalised structure. Should the supervisor doubt the authenticity of the reasons given for absence, he/she should use this opportunity to express any doubts or concerns.


At all times, the employee must be aware that the interview is not merely part of company procedures, but a significant meeting during which the absence has been noted and may have implications for future employment. The company’s disciplinary procedure, in the event of unacceptable levels of absence, should be explained to the employee,” she emphasised.

Challenges in Managing Absenteeism
Managing absenteeism is not without its own challenges and this accounts for why Yorges emphasised that “supervisors are often uncomfortable or unwilling to report on those who have exceeded acceptable levels of absenteeism”.


According to Yorges, because of the many pressures already on supervisors, the consistent implementation of absenteeism policies is not always their top priority. She however stressed that it is important to try to take the subjectivity out of managing absenteeism and to ensure that all employees are treated the same.


“It is essential to be consistent, persistent, and fair to all. When absence is not addressed or addressed in an inconsistent manner, lower morale can result. Employees can feel they have been treated unfairly when they perceive other absent employees are “getting away with it.”


The majority of employees, she explained will appreciate policies and programmes that are facilitative, rather than punitive noting that stringent or punitive measures that force employees to come to work can result in employees that then become, “absent while at work.”
“They do as little as possible and resist any effort to get them to do more. Other programmes should be implemented that help employees be present at work, such as flexible work scheduling, job sharing, attendance awards and wellness programmes,” she added. 

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