By Sonia Petricca
It is Monday morning and you get that same phone call you have received so often at the beginning of the work week. One of your employees is out “sick” again and it is becoming very suspicious given the frequency and pattern of his/her absences. So how do you go about handling an attendance problem when you suspect the reasons are not legitimate?
Poor attendance is not only a frustrating employee issue, it is also bad for business. It has negative consequences on productivity, revenue, employee morale and customer service. For these reasons, it is important to address and document all absences to set clear expectations and a consistent practice. There are, of course, legitimate and reasonable amounts of absenteeism that every employer should expect but, unfortunately, there are also circumstances where some employees will take advantage. If this behaviour remains unchecked, it can set a poor example for others and cause morale issues, especially if other employees are picking up the slack.
Even before you are confronted with attendance problems, there are some “best practices” you should have in place:
- Absenteeism and/or Leave Policy – Ensure you have a clear policy indicating excusable and non-excusable absences. Some employers may provide a certain allowance of hours/days per year whereas others may not have a ceiling. You need to decide what your approach will be when it comes to dealing with absences and whether you want to consider options like providing employees a certain number of paid or unpaid days off (i.e. doctor’s appointments, sickness, personal days, etc.) per year which will help better anticipate absences. Either way, make sure you are clear as to what types of absences are permissible, the amount of notice required and what types require documentation (i.e. doctor’s notes). Your policy should also include information on what disciplinary actions will be taken after a certain number of absences. To ensure all employees are understand the policy, have employees sign-off on the policy as a condition of their employment. You may even want to have them sign-off on the policy again every year, depending on how much your absenteeism policy needs to be reinforced.
- Practice what is preached – A policy is useless unless it is put into practice. Do not simply leave it in writing; make sure the policy is consistently applied. This is especially important if you ever need to terminate an employee due to poor attendance. You want to ensure you can show documented proof that the policy was understood and consistently applied.
- Track and Document Absences – Ensure you are consistently tracking all absences and their reasons by keeping a record on file of any documentation or occurrences (No call/No show, Sick Day, Doctor’s Appointment, Late, etc.). The importance of tracking is not only in the event of a termination. Having data on absenteeism can also help identify any possible workplace issues, because there can be extenuating circumstances for why an employee(s) are missing work. Data may show an unusual spike in attendance problems in a specific area of the business or if there is a common spike at certain times of the year. For this reason, it is also a good idea to track terminations and reasons for leaving. There could be problems related to workload or workplace stress, or management ineffectiveness. For example, you may find that if employees are given more flexible schedule options or allowed to switch their shifts in case of an emergency; it could reduce your rates of absenteeism. It is always good to keep a pulse on your absenteeism occurrences and do a little research to see if you have a wider problem.
- Speak to an Expert – If you are unsure how to deal with a specific circumstance or a more widespread problem, then engage the help of an disability specialist and/or labour lawyer. It is important to keep in mind that if there is a disability causing the absenteeism that you are not opening yourself up to any liability or human rights complaint. Ensure that you meet your duty to provide any “reasonable accommodations” for an employee who has a disability based upon information from their medical practitioner. Otherwise, if an employee is terminated and can later prove you were aware he had a disability that you did not accommodate, you may open yourself up to legal trouble.
- Be Prudent and Fair – Do not rely solely on assumptions; ensure that any steps taken towards resolving an employee attendance problem are rooted in facts. Try to ascertain whether there is a way you can resolve an attendance problem before it ends up as a possible termination. Terminating an employee who is habitually absent without legitimate reasons can set the right example, but other times, you may have to manage perceptions to ensure that the right message is conveyed to remaining employees. Being equitable and fair will contribute to a more positive workplace culture.
Sonia Petricca is a member of the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA)—the regulator of the HR profession in Ontario. www.hrpa.ca