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Top tips on tackling absence


Employee absence and latenessEvery year, darker mornings and colder weather lead to an increase in both the frequency of lateness and unauthorised absence. Some may expect these figures to reduce in today’s economic climate, with many people concerned about keeping their jobs, yet this doesn’t appear to be the case, says Tim Holden.

Let’s start at the very beginning

When we tackle absence we start by determining the scale of the problem, and so in order to demonstrate how savings can be made we estimate the direct costs, indirect costs and time lost through lateness and absence.

Following this assessment, we ask questions around the causes:

  • Are they job-related?

  • Could a professional analysis of the job be worthwhile?

  • How appropriate are the controls in place?

  • Which team leaders or departments have the poorest records? Naming and shaming can be very effective.

It is useful to differentiate between authorised absence (relating to genuine reasons where people know in advance they will be absent, such as a medical appointment or the funeral of a relative) and unauthorised absence where it is difficult to ascertain if there is a legitimate reason.

Effectively reducing lateness and absence

When an organisation takes lateness and absence seriously, perhaps with the use of absence measures as a key performance indicator, there is an obvious possibility that employees are discouraged from taking time off even when they are genuinely unwell and it is not macho to be ill. This is not advisable; in our experience, such individuals are likely to under-perform and this will have a negative impact throughout the whole operation.

In respect of lateness, typical reasons include commuting issues and childcare or caring responsibilities. Insisting that employees make up their tardiness with overtime is not best practice in our opinion; instead we advocate a firm policy, a monitoring system, the introduction of flexible hours and/or varying work arrangements to help workers who struggle with their timekeeping.

Reducing lateness and absence provides a great opportunity for HR to become or remain a true business partner. We recommend the following approaches:

Handbook: Cover procedures clearly such as:

  • Reporting absence including certification arrangements

  • Arrangements for contractual sick pay and how this relates to statutory sick pay

  • Roles and responsibilities of everyone involved

  • How long-term and short-term absence will be managed

  • Arrangements for return to work interviews

Return to work interviews: These should aim to:

  • Make a point of discussing any absence with the employee on his or her return to work

  • Make it clear he or she was missed

  • Adopt a friendly and interested tone

  • If any problems arise or are inferred at the meeting ensure these are addressed.

Policies: To minimise lateness and absence, forward-thinking policies should seek to:

  • Provide good physical working conditions

  • Check that health and safety rules are adhered to

  • Ensure all employees receive the appropriate training, especially those individuals undertaking strenuous physical activity, working with machinery or in a hazardous environment

  • Line managers and supervisors need to be trained on techniques to maintain high levels of engagement, particularly in a climate of redundancies

  • Review working arrangements where there are high levels of absence, including the use of job sharing and flexible working

  • Take steps to create opportunities for promotion and development

  • Encourage team working so that peer group pressure helps keep lateness to a minimum

  • Redesign roles to relieve people from monotonous routine or stress

  • Advocate positive health and wellbeing arrangements

  • Agree what is reasonable for emergencies and medical appointments

Sticks: Trigger points are set and excessive levels of lateness and absence are treated as misconduct or in some cases as gross misconduct. Consideration is needed of the Disability Discrimination Act and the need to make reasonable adjustments in this case.

Carrots: The following attendance incentives have led to improvements in lateness and absence, although this is dependent on the culture in place at the time:

  • Attendance bonuses – payment of additional cash to employees with a 100% attendance record.

  • Adjustments to profit sharing – if some type of performance related pay is in place the proportion of bonus allotted to individuals is increased if their attendance record is good.

  • Well-pay plans – no payments are made over and above statutory sick pay for days absent, but extra payments are made for months where attendance is perfect.

  • Group-based approaches – bonuses are paid to each individual team member or department where average absence levels reach set targets.

  • Lotteries – all employees with a 100% attendance record over a certain period are entered into a hat and the winner rewarded with cash sum or other gift. As a Burnley season ticket holder, I know of an employer in the town who hires an executive box for the football season, and ‘rewards’ employees who have completed a full month without absence by entering them into a prize draw for an all-expenses paid day out at Turf Moor – but for some this could be a stick!


Reducing lateness and absence provides a great opportunity for HR to add value in a way that can be measured accurately. We find that the best organisations in this area:

  • Obtain senior management commitment

  • Ensure that employees understand the impact of absence

  • Communicate the policy to all and act consistently

  • Make sure they have an accurate picture of absence so they are not relying on subjective opinions

  • Are supportive of absent employees

  • Take a proactive stance to health screening, healthy eating and discounted exercise facilities

  • Train and support line managers

  • Make use of professional advice such as qualified occupational health experts

  • Record absence regularly and accurately

Tim Holden is managing director of Fluid Consulting Ltd.

3 Responses

  1. Absence
    You raise a valid point Don. Rest and recuperation is often the best solution, indeed I know of one individual with a background of stress and depression who is taking this course of action at present. However in my opinion the most appropriate technique to reduce absence depends on the personality of the individual plus the culture, values and beliefs of the organisation. This is one area where quite clearly one size does not fit all!

  2. Sick absence – a reality check?
    For many employees sick absence is genuinely caused by illness, in some instances a serious medical condition and / or operation. It is important that this is recognised in allowing sufficient time for recovery and in putting in place measures that do not treat all employees as if they are malingerers. Tackling unauthorised absence is important and the “carrot and stick” measures can help with these especially. However, it may not help those genuinely in need of recovery time and also may tend to reinforce a cultural view that absence is a lifestyle choice. If you need time to recover from surgery or illness, it does not help you as an individual nor the organisation by being pressurised to come back too soon by the “stick or carrot”. There seems to be a increasing view that health is a matter of choice. Whilst we can all improve health through lifestyle changes and that may help with prevention, people do not choose to become ill and may need help to cope with the consequences. Managers can also help by targeting their staff who are known or suspected to be “swinging the lead”. Discussion with attendance managers suggests that these are often able to avoid “triggers”, as they are making choices about absence, and that it is those who really are unwell who are more likely to reach trigger points, as they have no choice, being ill. If the attendance of people “swinging the lead” can be improved, it will benefit not only the organisation , but their genuinely sick colleagues.

  3. Absence
    Not so much a comment but more a question……….early in the article comment is made on the perceived disadvantage of processes which may bring people to work when in fact they should be home recuperating. There is some merit in this. However, later in the article there is a list of ‘Carrots’ which I would have thought are the very incentives likely to encourage attendance when recovery would be more relevant. How does Tim resolve this apparent contradiction? Cheers.

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