Addressing Absenteeism in Your Workforce

Addressing Absenteeism in Your Workforce

A client recently contacted us and wanted to discuss employee absenteeism. The client, a government contractor, had experienced a recent surge in employee absenteeism (for various reasons such as PTO, sick leave, call off’s, LWOP, etc.). Although the client did not want to broadly discourage employees from taking time off, such absenteeism directly affected their bottom line because when the employees missed work, they were not billable to the contract. The client wanted guidance on how to best address this conundrum and how to handle employees who had a pattern of unscheduled, excessive absences.

A)   All “Absenteeism” is Not Created Equal

Managing employees’ time away from work is a fact of life for any business; it is to some extent an unavoidable overhead cost that can vary from year to year.  However, not all absenteeism is avoidable.  By learning more about the causes of absenteeism and by better understanding employees’ motivations for missing work, employers can gain an understanding of how to reduce absenteeism among their workforce.

What is Absenteeism? Absenteeism is regularly used to describe employees’ absence from the workplace – sometimes planned, but often unplanned and unannounced. Most employees miss work on occasion, but it’s important to be able to identify a pattern of unscheduled absenteeism in the early stages. There are two basic types of absenteeism; scheduled absences and unscheduled absences.

  • Scheduled absences include things such as vacation, holidays, and foreseeable absences like maternity leave or surgical recovery. These absences are usually allowed by company policy (or state or federal law). They are scheduled in advance, and easier to prepare for so the effect on the company’s productivity is minimal. Even extended employee absences can be less impactful if managers and affected employees have an opportunity to properly prepare for the employee’s absence.
  • Unscheduled absences, also a form of absenteeism, is defined as chronic or habitual absences that are not protected by Federal and/or State regulations. These absences often do not comply with company policy and are not pre-approved. Unscheduled absences also include habitual tardiness or employees leaving work early on a regular basis without authorization.

Both scheduled and unscheduled absences can have a negative impact on your organization’s productivity. While some absenteeism is unavoidable among your workforce, minimizing its effect on your organization’s operations requires some preparation.

B)  Strategies to Mitigate the Effect of Employee Absenteeism

One of the most effective strategies to manage absenteeism is to clearly set attendance and leave of absence expectations among your employees by implementing a clearly defined attendance and leave of absence policy and communicating that policy to all new hires – and even periodically thereafter to current employees, as a friendly reminder. Your attendance policy should provide concrete attendance expectations, including a definition of the workday and hours; the amount of sick, personal, and vacation time allotted to employees; procedures for using the leave; whether employees are allowed to “go into the negative” on their paid leave; and whether the company allows employees to use leave without pay (“LWOP”).  The procedures should outline how far in advance employees must notify their supervisors of their intention to take time off, and that those requests will be approved (or not) based on the business and operational needs of the company. For example, the need for work coverage during the summer or over holidays means that not everybody’s leave request may be granted.

The policy should also explain the procedures for calling in sick, including whom to contact, by what means (i.e., phone, e-mail, text) and by what time on a given day. Finally, note which absences will be paid and which ones will be unpaid.

In larger organizations, immediate supervisors are often the first to become aware of employee absences – particularly if they start to become excessive. Supervisors are in the right position to understand the reasons regarding an individual’s absence and to catch any problems at an early stage. Therefore, their active involvement in the company’s absenteeism procedures is pivotal to the overall effectiveness of an absenteeism policy or program. To ensure that supervisors are comfortable and well versed in their role of managing absenteeism, they need to have the full support of senior management. Therefore, they should be fully trained on the company attendance and leave policies.

Another option supervisors can employ to combat Absenteeism is to conduct a return to work interview. Recent national surveys indicate that these interviews are regarded as one of the most effective tools for managing Absenteeism. Return to work interviews are designed to welcome the employee back to work, get a general idea of the employee’s well-being, and to have the employee or supervisor fill out any required paper work that may be required to restore the employee to active status. Some companies have found that an established procedure through which it can directly discuss absences with an employee can, on its own, act as a deterrent to absenteeism.

Some companies choose the “carrot” approach, and reward good attendance. For example, a company might give employees a bonus for having no unplanned absences for a defined amount of time. Good attendance can also be incorporated into the annual performance appraisal  process and be one of the metrics used to evaluate whether a merit increase is warranted.

Lastly, let’s not forget that absenteeism is sometimes legitimately due to a hardship in an employee’s personal life.  Offering the employee support, through an EAP program for example, may help the employee deal more expeditiously with personal issues that are affecting their attendance. While EAP’s or other types of company programs are traditionally viewed as a benefit for the employee, they also have the added benefit to the company of returning absent employees to the workplace sooner than they might have otherwise without the assistance program.

C)  Be Proactive, Not Reactive

In order for an organization to address absenteeism, it needs a committed and engaged workforce.  One way to foster commitment and engagement is by setting clear expectations and providing a support system. With regards to our government contracting client, C2 was able help the client improve its existing attendance policy so that all employees and managers were “on the same page” about attendance expectations and the types and amounts of leave available to employees.  Another great proactive approach is to provide your supervisors training on how to handle employee absenteeism, including making sure that all supervisors are familiar with the types of leave available to company employees, and that they are educated on some best practices to help them navigate absenteeism issues with more confidence and in a manner that promotes employee attendance.  Although there is no magic bullet to eliminating unwanted employee absenteeism, there are certainly steps that companies can take to help mitigate its frequency and affect on their overall operations.


C2 provides strategic HR outsourcing to clients who want to develop optimal workforce strategies and solutions to allow them to be more competitive and profitable. C2 blog posts are intended for educational and informational purposes only.

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After graduating with a degree in Philosophy from Emory & Henry College in Southern Virginia, Mr. McCoy earned his law degree from Valparaiso University School of Law. Mr. McCoy began his legal career as a judicial law clerk to judges on two different intermediate courts of appeal before settling in the D.C. region.


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