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Taking control of absence


Stick to your gunsAbsence can be controlled by setting and maintaining the standards required – and sticking to your guns, says John Pope.

Some organisations have very high rates of absence through sickness and this government has recently talked about reducing such absence by replacing sick notes with well notes, stating what work an individual would be able to do.

John Pope“Their approach to absence was firm. On return to work the individuals were seen straightaway by their supervisors.”

I have been fortunate to work with many generally smallish companies where ‘presence control’ was the problem; that is making sure that members did not drag themselves into work when they were ill. But I have also been in organisations, not necessarily large ones, where absence was a serious problem. I would like to relate how one organisation avoided it.

A well-known Japanese electronics company decided to set up manufacturing in South Wales, attracted in part by the generous grants. It was then an area where Friday sickness was pretty high, and Monday sickness even higher – especially when there had been an important match at Cardiff Arms Park. The company decided that they wanted to run the business properly, they wanted it to be efficient; they would start as they meant to go on and not have sickness. Here’s what they did.

Before recruitment

They made sure that people in their area knew they were a prestigious firm; a household word; building a clean, modern, new plant; that there would be a big workforce doing assembly work. They publicised the excellent conditions in their other factories, they took local councillors and others to see some of their plants.


They did their research, and identified the areas where the sort of people they wanted lived. They took special note of those which were on a good bus route to the plant.

For their assembly workforce, they advertised selectively and got a high response. They generally got female labour, though they had not specified that. In part that was a result of the local culture that men did not do ‘cissy’ jobs. They picked those who looked clean, neat and tidy, and active. They gave them the well proven dexterity tests; they would not take on those who didn’t come up to their standards.

They paid well; other local employers said they overpaid, to whom they replied that the local employers underpaid – their response was something about ‘peanuts and monkeys’.

They also, shock-horror, asked them about their family arrangements, the children and their ages, who looked after the children, what happened in the school holidays, whether there was a grandmother who helped, etc. They asked where the man worked, whether they had friends or neighbours who were applying. They assessed their stability and potential, the likelihood of their regular attendance, and selected accordingly.

Starting work

They did good inductions, talked about their business, its future, their plans for expansion if all went well. They were careful when organising people into teams; they trained well and thoroughly, and then they started.

Their approach to absence was firm. On return to work the individuals were seen straightaway by their supervisors – were told they had been missed, hoped they were well enough to work, that they had aimed on having a good day but missed their target because of the absence, and so on. When the next level manager came around the process was repeated and so on upwards. They showed that presence was important and that senior managers took attendance and performance seriously.

A second absence was treated more seriously. Despite protestations that ‘they were alright now’, it was ‘off to the company nurse’. Third time was much more serious, indicating that they were very worried about them and that they mustn’t risk their health. Anything further led to dismissal on health grounds.

For those genuinely ill, the organisation was more generous with sick pay and benefits than the other local employers.

Start right, stay right

Now you will say that this is an exceptional case; that they were starting on a green-field, though in reality it was being built on a very dark brown-field site; that they were discriminating against people with disabilities, or those with children; that some of those approaches are not now allowed; and you may be right. They were selective and took ‘the cream’. I think they were right to do so. If they had not, that plant might well have failed, their investment lost and many people unemployed.

“A change of ownership and a new top management team can change culture, as can the prospect of closure and unemployment. Leadership from top management is even better.”

But they also set up a ‘culture of attendance’. They were firm, some people might say tough but fair, and applied the same rules to all at every level.

They showed they cared about their staff – managers at all levels paid close attention to individuals and teams. They made sure individual and team productivity and performance figures were open and publicly discussed, and could be compared with other plants.

They had a culture of training and development and made sure that the workers from every level had the opportunity to progress within the company.

Starting with a clean sheet

Of course, it is much easier for an organisation to start with a ‘clean sheet’, but remember that many of those they recruited had experienced being managed sloppily and did not come with that clean sheet.

They were determined to make the new plant work – they were not prepared to drop any of their standards; they classed the quality of the workforce as being essential to the quality of their products and service; they classed it as important as the quality of the plant and equipment. And they were right, and it worked.

Can it still be done?

Well employment regulations are, thankfully, not my field. I cannot help feeling that there are too many and that, ultimately, they harm employment. But I am also sure that they can be over-applied and equally sure that too many managements are weak and give way to pressure, betray their principles and become sloppy as a result. Cultures and attitudes can be changed. A change of ownership and a new top management team can change culture, as can the prospect of closure and unemployment. Leadership from top management is even better.


Absence, sickness, indiscipline, and sloppiness are not inevitable. Some companies maintain a healthy culture while recruiting from the same labour pool as those with unhealthy cultures. That is no accident. It is a result of top management setting the standards and culture for managers at all levels, sticking to the principles and applying them to all. There are enough examples around to prove that that works.

John Pope has been a management consultant for over 40 years, and has had his own practice as an independent consultant for over 30 years. He continues to advise businesses on their direction, strategy and especially on the management of change. John can be contacted at

3 Responses

  1. Great article
    Great article, I’ll be citing in my final year at university. Great subject for an honours project. Currently I’m doing a HR placement for a company that makes games for mobile phones. There isn’t a problem of absenteeism here but a problem of motivation that could attributed to leadership.
    Anyway, just to inform you that employment legislation does state that employers have “a duty to care for their employees.” I think it’s rather intelligent how the company in your case study has intrepreted this whilst effectively relating it to the needs of the business. To create what could be seen as paternalistic approach to managing absenteeism and to create a “culture of attendance”.
    I look forward to reading your future articles.

  2. Down to earth
    Thanks for those kind words. We need more down-to-earth managers who don’t understand long words and who don’t overcomplicate things. I have worked with some wonderful ones many of whom had started on the shop floor and have got right to the top. They all had a sense of reality . I just wish reality was injected at business school. Many HR problems cowould not arise if managers took a robust approach and were backed up by the senior management. I am not advocating brutality, just reality. HR would have fewer troubles too.
    I’ll write that article on managing performance some day, at present I am planning to write on better approaches to developing people.

  3. Managing absence
    Excellent article John. Is there any chance you can have this case study mandatory for all Business Management Schools!!!!! I doubt anything like this gets put to students as a recommendation, otherwise the practice would be widespread huh?

    I have seen this approach successfully integrated into an established workforce where Friday/Monday “itis” was rampant, and once senior management became involved, like in your example at the second and third absence, even the union reluctantly backed off the threats of “go-slow” and “work-to-rule” never eventuated. As most often happens, it was the majority of better workers who told the union to back off because they had got sick of the malingerers…… it worked and continues to work very successfully. As a side issue, another example of union involvement working for the good of all and one of the reasons well run unions are a necessary partner in business.

    I agree absolutely with your comment on regulation and legislation. It seems clear to me this will not reduce until we get industrial relations out of the hands of lawyers and back with managers who enjoy HR support. Not a criticism of lawyers at all, but more I feel another example of lazy managers wanting to pass on items in their “too-hard” basket.


    Well done. Now can you present an article on managing poor performance? Cheers.

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