By Umer Raza Bhutta
(Ideas and suggestions for absence management in organizations)
Yesterday when I stepped into my daughter’s room I saw her teaching her little sister and the daughter of our maid. My daughter is in class 4 and she loves teaching her little sister and also to any other kid she finds. She usually starts the session with a roll call. I heard her class of two calling out loud “Present MAM”. She also questioned one of her dolls (that was a student too) why she was not present yesterday. During making up of an answer on behalf of her doll she created all the possible excuses that a grown up can have at any such situations.
This “Present Mam” reminded me of my office routines where “Present Mam” is replaced with swiping of cards or signing of registers or imprinting the thumb impression. Whatever it is in our organizations, if a card is not swiped or a register is not signed or an impression of thumb is not recorded from a staff it becomes absence from duty. It may turn out to be a non issue for few, but for many still it is something where muscles are stretched.
Organizations are increasingly recognizing the significant costs associated with high levels of employee absence. At the same time, managers are often unsure about the level and nature of the problems they may be facing, or about how these problems are most effectively addressed. Most managers would accept, for example, that some level of absence is inevitable and that it’s generally desirable for employees to be absent from work if they’re genuinely ill. Equally, most managers recognize that handling individual absence issues is often complex and potentially sensitive.
If an employee is repeatedly absent for short periods (say, one or two days at a time), this is likely both to undermine the individual’s own performance and to be disruptive to other colleagues and organization. In practice, such absence is often difficult to handle because the manager has to consider questions such as: At what point does occasional absence start to become problematic?, Does the absence appear to be justified on medical grounds?, If so, are there any underlying causes that can be addressed?, If not, what steps should you take to improve attendance?
In many cases, these questions won’t be easy to answer. A high incidence of absence over a given period may not in itself necessarily be problematic if this isn’t the norm for the employee and if the causes are evident for example, a medical condition that recurs over a limited period. On the other hand, if absence is less frequent but persists over a long period for example, if an employee repeatedly takes one or two days off every month over several months, it may be a greater cause for concern. Similarly, it may well be that some of the absence is attributable to medical causes but overall absence levels still appear excessive.
Although it’s important to treat each case on its merits, it’s also essential that employers apply the same standards to all staff. As a starting point, research indicates that the single most effective action to reduce absence is to consistently conduct return-to-work interviews for all staff that was absent, however long or short the absence period.
Why are return-to-work interviews important and what do they involve?
Return-to-work interviews should normally be conducted by the employee’s immediate supervisor or manager. The interview identifies the cause of the absence and provides an opportunity to explore any particular problems the employee may have. They indicate to employees that their absence was noticed and that they were missed. Above all, they demonstrate that absence is a high priority for the employer and that policies are being put into practice.
Return-to-work interviews need to be carried out by managers after every instance of absence, without exception. Managers must be appropriately trained in how to conduct these interviews to help ensure high levels of fairness and consistency. Typically, the manager should: enquire into the reason for the absence, assess whether the reasons offered are consistent with other reliable available evidence, raise any doubts with the staff, allow the staff to explain the absence.
Managers find many competing pressures on their time and it may be tempting to overlook the requirement to carry out the interview. It may be appropriate therefore to install some control mechanism that requires documentary evidence or sign-off that the interview has taken place, such as a form to be returned to the HR department. In any event, it’s useful to keep some written record of the interview in case the formal disciplinary procedure needs to be invoked at a future date.
Alongside these standard return-to-work interviews, clear standards should be established about when to first start your investigation of short-term absence. You need to know what level or pattern of absence will act as a ‘trigger point’ for you to take action.
Each case will require different treatment, and the line manager needs to start by gathering as much information as possible about the nature and causes of the absence. Once the trigger point has been reached, the first step will normally be for the manager to review the statistical and other data relating to the absence patterns. Key questions might include: Is there any discernible pattern to the absence, for example recurrent absences on Mondays or Fridays?, What proportion of the absence is approved and what is not approved by the department head?, What reasons have been given for previous absence? Are the causes varied or does there appear to be a linkage between the various absences?, What information has been gathered from previous return-to-work interviews?, What anecdotal or other evidence might be available about possible underlying causes of absence?
It’s important that the manager doesn’t jump to conclusions simply on the basis of this data, particularly given that anecdotal or similar information may be highly unreliable. However, this kind of analysis will help the manager identify potential issues to explore with the employee.
Absence review meetings
Following the initial review of the available statistical data, the next step will normally be to conduct an absence review session with the individual. Although this session is likely to be longer and more wide-ranging than a standard return-to-work interview, it shouldn’t at this stage be presented or perceived as part of the disciplinary process.
The purpose and style of the meeting should be a positive and constructive one. The employee should be helped and encouraged to understand that their absence is a problem to the organization, and the discussion should then explore the reasons for the absence with the aim of identifying practical steps that might be taken to reduce absence levels in the future.
Conducting an effective absence review requires some skill on the part of the line manager. For managers who are dealing with significant numbers of employees, it may well be advisable for the organization to provide some training in the skills of absence review meetings as part of the absence management process. Such training helps managers understand some of the potential causes of absence, the kinds of symptoms that might be indicative of particular causal factors, and the approaches that can be adopted when reviewing absence issues with employees.
Ideally, the manager, while reiterating the organization’s declared attendance standards, must also aim to establish a spirit of openness and frankness in the meeting. The manager should encourage the employee to discuss as openly as possible any factors that might be affecting their attendance. The tactics adopted by the manager may depend on the judgements that have been made on the basis of the existing evidence. For example, the manager may suspect that previous absence may have been caused by domestic or similar factors, rather than genuine illness.
In such cases, it might be appropriate to open the session by “declaring an amnesty” on previous incidents so that the employee is encouraged to speak openly about the reasons for past absence without any fear of resulting disciplinary action. If, on the other hand, the manager suspects that there may be some underlying medical cause behind a series of supposedly disconnected absences, it may be appropriate to focus supportively on the provision of medical help or advice.
The manager should explore all the issues as widely as possible, avoiding drawing early conclusions, and listening carefully to what’s said, how it’s expressed, and, in some cases, perhaps also listening for what’s not being said.
If the manager feels any doubts about the possible nature or causes of the absence, it could also be appropriate to seek further expert or professional input before proceeding further. In organizations with significant presence of an HR department, the manager should at least review the case with relevant HR staff before taking any action. In many cases, though, there may be doubt about, for example, the precise mix of medical and non-medical causes, or about the genuineness of the stated causes.
What action should you take to address the problem?
Does the absence appear to be justified? If so, what practical steps can you take to help improve attendance? Can you provide medical or other support to help improve attendance?, Can you encourage or support changes in lifestyle?. Can you provide any kinds of external support that might address, say, stress-related absence, for example financial or domestic advice or support? Can you provide practical support to assist attendance, for example in terms of travel-to-work or other domestic issues? Can you provide any support in dealing with work-related problems, for example in terms of workload or challenges at work?
Taking action: Having weighed up all the available evidence, the manager will need to judge what action is appropriate to address the problem. The key objective here should simply be to address the absence problem, and you should consider any appropriate steps that may help to achieve this end. Formal action on grounds of discipline or capability will generally be the last resort, unless there are very strong reasons and evidences for taking immediate action.
In exploring these and similar options, your aim should be to identify any reasonable steps that might be taken by the organisation to support the individual in improving their attendance. This doesn’t mean you’re presenting the individual with a ‘blank cheque’ to make any desired changes – for instance, an employee can’t automatically expect to be able to change their working hours because that’s more convenient domestically. But it should mean that you’re providing practical support that’s also consistent with the operational needs of the organisation.
In any case, this isn’t a one-way contract. In parallel with exploring these constructive steps, you should be emphasising the individual’s own responsibilities for attending work. Depending on the circumstances of the case, you could link any positive support with a tightening of the provisions surrounding absence. For example, you could:
• Indicate to the individual that, following the provision of additional support, you expect absence levels to improve across a defined timescale. If this improvement doesn’t happen, or if absence levels increase again in the future, the individual can expect to face more formal disciplinary action.
• Make medical certification a requirement for all absence.
• Insist on a periodic examination by a certified medical practitioner to track progress in any health improvements.
This approach is likely to be particularly helpful in cases where there is some reasonable doubt about the legitimacy of the stated reasons for absence. It may be, for example, that the stated medical reasons for absence are genuine, but that their impact on attendance is being exaggerated.
Regardless of the combination of actions you take in a given case, it’s essential that monitoring continues over an extended period, with reviews of progress with the individual. The frequency of these reviews will depend on the nature of the problems and the actions you decided on, but initially it will generally be appropriate to meet with the individual at least once a month. Your discussion should review the actions being taken and assess whether they appear to be having the desired effect on the person’s absence levels. If there has been no improvement, you’ll need to explore the reasons for this, and then take further action if needed.
Understandably, HR has a key role to play in all of the above. However, the focus remains that to reprimand an employee us easy on any ground, but to make him engaged and valuable for the organization is essentially a task worthy to the status of modern HR practices. And sounds like “Present MAM” are always a cheerful reminder of existence of life.