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How do I turn absence into attendance?
Article Type: Q&A From: Strategic HR Review, Volume 8, Issue 5
Leading industry experts answer your strategic HR queries
Kate RussellKate Russell is based at Russell HR Consulting.
While it is essential to manage absence effectively, accept that people will get sick from time to time. The biggest problem in some countries, such as the UK, is short-term absence for unrelated reasons. In this article I focus on how to get those with chronic “Monday-itus” back to work.
Absence management programs typically include guidance on sickness absence notification, return to work meetings (RTWM) and involvement of occupational health advisors. There will be a trigger at which point the organization becomes formally concerned about attendance. If there is no underlying health reason for the absences, the employee may be taken through the disciplinary procedure and dismissed for poor attendance. These are all well-established procedures, and properly done, they work well.
If it is so easy, however, why do so many organizations still suffer high absence levels?
1 Be comprehensive, diligent and persistent
Managing attendance must be done comprehensively, diligently and persistently. Manage absentees closely. Many managers hate carrying out what they see as a pink and fluffy HR role and male managers are often the worst offenders (sorry guys, but it is true). At the mere thought of saying things like “we’ve missed you” or “how are you?” they stare at their shoes, shuffle papers on the desk and look anywhere but at the employee. If you are going to call someone to account, you have to look him straight in the eyes and smile. As I gaze amiably, but directly, over my reading glasses, you can see the person opposite wriggle (this is known as the “HR headmistress” effect). I want to move the absentee very slightly out of his comfort zone and the specs trick works rather well.
Most absences are caused by minor ailments, for example, coughs and colds. Sufferers are quite capable of picking up the phone and reporting that they are sick, but often ask someone else to do it for them. Your basic rule should require employees capable of doing so to speak to you in person, not leave a message with a colleague, or send a text or email. This process starts to call employees to account.
Take details down when they call in. Those with a tendency to make up symptoms often forget what they say. This can be tested and discussed at the RTWM.
2 Make the RTWM work for you
Hold the RTWM for all employees on the day they return to work. The longer you leave it the less impact it has. The style of the RTWM varies depending on the employee’s attendance. If the employee’s attendance is normally good, you only need to check he is OK, welcome him back, brief him on what has been happening, complete the relevant documentation and thank him for his commitment to the organization.
For a poorer attendee, do the above, then show him his attendance record and say how concerned you are about his attendance. If he responds that he cannot help it, he is sick, reply that you cannot comment as you are not a doctor. But as his manager, you have serious concerns about his attendance and want to work with him to enable him to improve his attendance. Often the mere sight of the attendance sheet showing all those Ss, and the informal but structured chat HR headmistress style, will be enough to gain the improvement needed.
3 Aim for prevention rather than cure
It is in your interest to support your employees and do what you reasonably can to help them attend for work. It is also reasonable to expect the employee to take such steps as he reasonably can to manage his health and affairs so that he can come back to work, so ask him what he is doing to help himself and explain that you expect him to meet you half way.
If that does not have the required effect, start to move the employee nicely, helpfully, lawfully, but firmly, through the disciplinary procedure. In my experience most people who have no intention of improving their attendance find another job at this stage. Those who want to improve do so quickly.
Let me conclude by saying this process works, but prevention is better than cure when it comes to managing attendance. Avoid recruiting people with chronic Monday-itus and offer healthy choices at work. Encourage employees to:
Take holidays at reasonable intervals.
Take a break during the working day – even if it is only a walk round the block.
Drink enough water during the working day (you could also provide herbal tea and decaffeinated coffee).
If you tackle problems early, maintain a consistent watchfulness and escalate problems properly, you will find that your attendance levels will improve, saving you time, effort and money.
About the author
Kate Russell heads up Russell HR Consulting. She is an employment law expert and author of a number of HR titles, including Off the Sick List! A qualified barrister, she worked in industry in operations, and later as an HR advisor and trainer, before setting up the business. Kate Russell can be contacted at: email@example.com
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