Brain Food: Crash Course in ... Managing Absence

It's Monday morning and your department is half-empty. Has the flu been flying around or is your whole workforce throwing a sickie?

by Alexander Garrett
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Take control. 'The first thing you have to do is believe you can control absence,' says Mike Huss, senior employment law specialist at personnel consultancy Peninsula. Too many employers have a casual approach towards sickness and absence, he believes, opening themselves to abuse.

Write the rules. A policy is essential, says Huss. 'When an employee is sick they should ring in themselves, not use their friends and family, and they must talk to a manager.' Your policy should also state in what circumstances absence is permissible, expectations about seeking medical help, and what sickness benefit will be paid.

Take a roll call. You can't know whether you have a problem of absenteeism if you aren't recording who's at work and who's not. Mike Petrook, public affairs manager of the Chartered Management Institute, says: 'If employees know that data is being collected, they are less likely to take liberties.'

Have a chat. Whether or not you call it a formal back-to-work interview, make sure that you talk to your employee when they return. 'It's important to establish the reason for their absence, and if it's down to illness, will it recur?' says Petrook. 'It's also a good opportunity to update them on what they've missed.'

Look for patterns. Look out for suspicious trends in your data. An employee who is regularly off work on Mondays and Fridays is a prime example. 'I don't know of any sickness that gives you a long weekend,' says Huss.

Benchmark against competitors and internally to find out if you have a problem and where it is.

Collect the evidence. If you believe an employee is deliberately skiving off, you'll need some evidence. Keep records of reasons given for absence when an employee is ill and when they come back, to see if these stack up, says Huss. 'As the employer, you have the right to say you don't believe them.'

What's behind it. Absenteeism is often a symptom of a deeper malaise. Is your workforce demoralised and poorly motivated? Look for the underlying causes.

Avoid incentives. Paying people rewards or bonuses for attendance undermines your initiatives to get them to take responsibility for their work, says Petrook. It's also likely to lead to squabbles. Better to offer positive benefits such as flexible working and health benefits that will show that you care about their well-being.

Avoid overkill. Don't encourage your people to come to work when they really are ill. They won't perform, you risk them getting more ill, and they'll spread their germs.

Do say: 'If you're ill, go home and see a doctor; if you're not, be here.'

Don't say: 'I didn't notice you weren't here.'

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