Attendance is hugely important in business. If your employees aren’t showing up to work, they aren’t getting their job done, and that’s a problem. It’s not just a problem for them, either; it’s a problem for the teammates who have to pick up the slack, a problem for the manager who has to deal with being short-handed, and a problem for the business that works less effectively.
If you’ve noticed that an employee has been having attendance issues, you likely need to take action. The question is, how?
1: Establish an Attendance Policy
The first thing you need to do is make sure you have an employee attendance policy and that each employee has a copy of that policy.
If you’re a larger company, chances are you already have a policy – even if it’s just a boilerplate policy copied from elsewhere – on file somewhere. It might be worth looking it over and customizing it for your business’s current environment and operating procedures. For example, a traditional attendance policy might not work well for a distributed, remote, and work-from-home team here in 2022.
If you don’t have an attendance policy already, you’ll want to write one. Writing one, however, can be surprisingly tricky. You want a firm but flexible policy that is fair to everyone and isn’t likely to cause adverse impact against a protected class (such as parents or those with chronic illnesses.)
Different companies have different cultures and may approach attendance differently. For example, many modern companies are now adopting a stance of “each employee has a task list; as long as they get the work done, it doesn’t matter when they do it.” Others want their employees clocked in from 9 to 5 every day and want as little flexibility as they can get away with. It’s part of your company culture.
Remember, a strict policy hurts morale, but a lax policy hurts productivity. Sick employees forced to work will result in more sick employees, lower morale, and lower productivity, but allowing employees to take sick days at the drop of a hat for everything leads to less attendance and lower productivity. It’s a balance you need to find for yourself.
Here are more tips for putting together an attendance policy, courtesy of When I Work.
2: Talk to the Employee and Learn Why
When you’ve noticed that an employee is having attendance issues, take the time to have a casual chat with them to figure out what’s going on.
You want this meeting to be private, but you want it to be casual. This isn’t a disciplinary meeting. You don’t want to instill the dread that comes from a blank “Meet me in my office” statement. Depending on your office culture, you might be able to drop them a line over Teams or Slack, meet with them before they head out for the day, or even ask to talk to them over lunch at a nearby pub.
The goal is to bring up your concerns, not as a disciplinary action, but as a concern. An employee that can’t reliably show up isn’t a valuable employee. But no one wants to be a slacker, so something must be going on. There are all kinds of reasons why an employee might be facing attendance issues, such as:
- Struggles with mental health issues.
- Fighting burnout due to long hours, heavy workloads, or stress outside of work.
- Dealing with a sick family or an illness of their own.
Of course, there are also less savory causes, such as:
- Substance abuse problems.
- Abuse of seniority under the assumption of permissions.
- Harassment in the workplace.
Discovering the cause of absenteeism allows you to help solve the problem with a means other than disciplinary action. After all, if an employee is facing stress that makes them not want to come into work, putting them on notice for not coming into work will do the exact opposite of help.
3: Consider Reasonable Accommodations, Where Possible
Remember that attendance and absenteeism are not isolated. If you want your employees to solve their problems and continue to work effectively, you can benefit from establishing accommodations, flexibility, and support to help them out. You might have these options already available, and the employee doesn’t know about them. Or, you might be able to set them up and add a new benefit to everyone on the team.
What kinds of accommodations might be relevant?
- A childcare stipend. In a family where both parents work, a disruption to the school schedule can cause problems when the child suddenly needs care during work hours. Offering to pay for at least some childcare/babysitting can be a potent benefit.
- Connections and coverage for mental health and substance abuse issues. Therapy and related treatments may or may not be covered under your employee insurance policy; however, it can be beneficial to build a company relationship with service providers to give access to your employees.
- Consider hiring new employees. One of the leading causes of absenteeism is a heavy workload, especially when sustained. Sure, it’s cheaper in the short term to operate with a skeleton crew, but when they all burn out and leave, you’re left with nothing. Hiring adequate staff is more expensive up front but boosts productivity, retention, and morale.
You can also use this opportunity to identify and address issues you didn’t know existed. Harassment is a big one; if it turns out one of your employees or managers is harassing other employees, the problem employee should be terminated. Harassment policies should also be stated in your employee handbook for this reason.
Another consideration you might have is whether or not your attendance policies are genuinely needed. For example, many businesses shifted from in-office work to remote work during the pandemic. Yet, many still require attendance from 9-5 with timeclock management and everything. Is it genuinely necessary to maintain, so long as work gets done appropriately? It might be time to analyze your existing policies and make changes.
4: Remind the Employee of Their Options
Remember that employees may have other options they can tap but have not done so. One of the biggest and most misunderstood options is FMLA, the Family and Medical Leave Act. While these are irritating to file for and maintain, they are an important (and legally-protected) way to take time off to cope with stress, medical problems, family issues, and other situations without risking being fired for using up all of one’s vacation days.
Depending on the situation, you may also want to accommodate the employee in other ways. Often, the more flexible and accommodating the employer, the more likely an employee is to be able to solve their problems and return to work effectively. Allowing them additional paid time off to encourage morale and retention can be a valid trade-off, though, of course, you need to determine if it’s worth extending such an offer.
5: Escalate to Punishment Only Where Necessary
The open palm wins more friends than the closed fist. Disciplinary action rarely solves a problem. The only attendance problem it solves is cases where an employee abuses systems and has no real underlying issue to face.
This is part of why the first step is a casual information-gathering meeting and not a disciplinary meeting. If you start off aggressive and threatening, your employees won’t improve. You lose nothing (but time, perhaps) by being friendly and discussing problems in a confidential-yet-casual setting.
Then, if you determine that the employee’s absenteeism issues stem from such time-honored excuses like “I just keep oversleeping” or “Well, that new MMO expansion just came out…” then you know you don’t need to make accommodations. At that point, the employee knows they’re in the wrong and deserves a strike against their record.
6: Don’t Let the Issue Slide
The goal of all of the above is to handle the issue appropriately. More importantly, it’s to establish that you handle the issue in a consistent manner.
After fact-finding, your goal is to encourage the employee to take appropriate action. If that means taking advantage of employee benefits that they didn’t know they had (or filing for FMLA), great! That means the employee is using all of the resources available to them. Conversely, if the employee has no actual justification and is abusing lax rules enforcement, well, it’s time to enforce the rules.
The goal here is to make sure you’re dealing with the issue consistently across your entire workforce. Making accommodations for an employee who is absent due to burnout but not making those same accommodations to one who has a medical issue can set you up for discrimination suits and other repercussions. Always be aware of your personal bias in enforcement, as well.
7: Triple-Check the Legality of Termination
Most locations across the country have “at-will” employment contracts. You are, generally, free to terminate an employee for nearly any reason at any time. The only risk is if your reasoning falls into a protected category. You can’t fire an employee for being pregnant or attending religious events, for example.
Thus, you need to take steps to protect yourself and your company if you’re considering terminating an employee for attendance issues. Steps taken may include:
- Ensuring you have attendance policies in place; you can’t fire someone for breaking a rule that didn’t exist until right before firing them.
- Ensuring you’re keeping proper records. Firing someone because “well, it seems like they show up late a lot” is inappropriate if there are other employees with worse records but who you don’t see coming in late as often.
- Verifying that the cause of absence is not related to a protected category of action.
- Making use of your policies. If you have a three-strikes policy for attendance, make sure you give those first two warning strikes before cutting to the chase.
It can even be worthwhile to discuss the situation with an employment lawyer before taking any final action.
“As long as termination is included as a possible outcome in the attendance policy, you’re free to cut the employee loose. While your employee attendance policy won’t make the actual firing any less unpleasant, it will help keep your company on a level and solid legal ground.” – Track Smart.
And, of course, make sure you’re documenting everything in writing to ensure that if the employee chooses to challenge you, you have the evidence necessary to defend yourself.
8: When All Else Fails, Let Them Go
No one likes to have to cut an employee loose, especially if they’re a good employee suffering from problems outside of their control. Sometimes, though, you can’t make any more accommodations for them without it becoming unfair to your other employees.
If you fear you’re approaching a point where you need to cut an employee loose, make sure you’ve covered all your bases first. Once that’s done, it might be time to start looking for a replacement. You don’t want to fire an employee, and only then start looking for a replacement. The downtime, during which the rest of your team needs to shoulder the burden of the lost employee’s work, can lead to even more burnout, more stress, lower morale, and other problems.
- Start with fact-finding to determine the root issue causing the absenteeism.
- Make any reasonable accommodations necessary to help the employee with their issues.
- Guide the employee towards using resources available to them, such as FMLA or therapy.
- Remind the employee of the company’s attendance policy and the associated penalties.
- Make sure to keep thorough records of attendance violations and other details.
- Issue warnings as appropriate according to the employee handbook and policies.
- Only then can you terminate the employee while remaining legally protected.
Policies require consistent enforcement. More importantly, employees often can benefit from a gentle hand and an attempt to solve the problem before leaping to termination. Look for solutions, not replacements, first and foremost.
Have any questions about improving your employee’s attendance issues? If so, please feel free to leave a comment down below, and we’ll get a conversation started. There is no one correct answer to this issue, so it’d be best to make sure you know which solution to implement depending on the case.
Andrew Greenberg’s roots in recruiting date back to 1996. He has experience both on the agency-side and corporate-side of the staffing business, with a focus in the financial services space at companies like Bloomberg and UBS. He also has core experience with information technology staffing, and has worked for major software companies such as SAP Business Objects and IBM/Informix Software. To get in touch with Andrew, you can reach him by email or by phone at (800) 797-6160.