The 6-Step Process for Dealing with Employee Absenteeism

As a business owner leading a team of employees, solving workplace issues as they appear is just another part of the job. Whether you’re dealing with coworker conflict for the first time or a pro at scheduling disputes, some problems are easier to tackle than others.

At first glance (or late clock-in), employee absenteeism and tardiness may not seem like that big of a deal. After all, emergencies happen. Shifts get rearranged, and it can feel good watching your team come together and cover for a sick coworker. But what if every once in a while becomes at least once a month, or even once a week? What if absenteeism stops becoming every now and then, and instead becomes a pattern of behavior?

According to CareerBuilder’s annual survey, employee absenteeism is currently on the rise, with 40 percent of workers in 2017 admitting they’ve called in sick in the last 12 months when they weren’t, up from 35 percent in 2016. Reported excuses for calling in have ranged from claims that a bear was in an employee’s yard and they were too scared to come out, to a dog swallowing their car keys. And in 2015 alone, productivity losses linked to absenteeism cost U.S. employers $225.8 billion annually, or $1,685 per employee.

Employee absenteeism can be difficult to address once it’s become a habit or accepted behavior by your team. After all, you can’t force employees to show up to work on time. But instead of watching the costs of unexpected absences add up, try this six step-process to get a handle on employee absenteeism and incentivize your whole team to embrace their inner punctuality.

1. Create an employee attendance policy 

The first step in learning how to handle employee absenteeism? Create an official employee attendance policy. Workplace attendance should be straightforward—show up on time, as scheduled. But in reality, figuring out how to track, document, and fix employee absenteeism can get complicated, and come with a lot of IFTTW—if that, then what—scenarios. What if an employee comes in 45 minutes late, but still shows up? What if they have a sick child or another emergency? What if they don’t show up for work at all? Then what?

It doesn’t matter if your business doesn’t have an official HR department or if you have five or fifty employees. An official attendance policy makes expectations for work behavior and disciplinary action clear to all team members. So take some time now to put together a policy that’s fair to both you and your employees. Consider different attendance issues like scheduled absences, unscheduled absences, and tardiness, then decide any necessary disciplinary actions and next steps for each. It doesn’t need to be complicated. Instead, focus on creating a policy that rules out subjectivity and defines what each type of absence means in clear, plain language.

Download the free employee attendance policy and customize it to your needs!

Once you’re finished, don’t just stick your brand new attendance policy in a binder on the shelf or hide it in the fine print of an employee handbook. Make sure every employee has the chance to see it and is made aware of the changes. Emphasize the importance of attendance as a shared responsibility and that everyone is expected to hold up their end of the bargain. Have your employees sign a waiver confirming that they’ve read the policy and that they consent to work under the new attendance requirements. It’s a good idea for your records to confirm it in writing should any disciplinary issues arise later. And speaking of disciplinary issues…

2. Enforce your attendance policy consistently

A habit doesn’t crop up overnight. A pattern of employee absenteeism is something that develops over time and may already be seen as accepted behavior by the time the issue lands on your desk. In order to learn how to handle employee absenteeism, you have to enforce your attendance policy consistently, each and every time.

That doesn’t mean you can’t show employees empathy or can’t have any wiggle room for emergencies. Instead, proactively build those situations into your policy. Have some escalation for unscheduled absences. One may be acceptable, but two may trigger a formal review. But remember: an unscheduled absence is much different than a “no-show.”

Texting that they’ll be late, swapping with a coworker, or calling in sick at least gives you notice that an employee won’t make it into work as scheduled and may give you time to find a replacement or prepare for an understaffed shift. A no-show can leave you wondering where they are, what happened, and leave your entire team hanging. Have a different plan of action for both attendance scenarios and apply it to all employees—including supervisors and management.

3. Keep track of employee absences  

When it comes to dealing with employee attendance, it’s important to keep complete records. How to track employee absenteeism depends on what works best for you and any shift leads or supervisors who will be enforcing the attendance policy. One easy way to track your employees’ time is with a time clock app, which provides useful clock in/clock out notifications  right away.

Every time an absence arises, make a note of it, either in your employee timekeeping system or in an employee performance tool. Or, consider putting together a stand-alone spreadsheet just for tracking attendance issues. Without a strategy in place for how to document employee absenteeism, it may be hard to keep track of employee attendance and flag when one-off unscheduled absences start to become a pattern.

If your team is small enough, limiting access to yourself may be enough to track employee behavior. But if you’re not able to be everywhere at once, make sure other supervisors also have a way of documenting absences and late arrivals—even if it’s just a separate column or a notation on that weeks’ shift schedule.

Why document everything? Most states have legalized at-will employment, meaning employees can be dismissed without employers having to establish “just cause” for termination. However, that doesn’t mean you have a blank check to fire whoever you want—bad firing practices can still put you at risk for a wrongful termination suit, and your first line of defense is a well-documented paper trail.

Absences can also fall under the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance, which provide employees with legal protection or accommodation for different types of absence “events.” Some states have enacted mandatory paid sick leave as well. Keep track of different absences, including both scheduled and unscheduled absences, to make sure you’re fulfilling your legal requirements as an employer. And in the case that you do need to let an employee go for absence-related issues, you’ll have a record that supports your decisions.

4. Address unscheduled absences and no-show’s immediately

Absences happen. But when an employee does call in sick or fails to show up for a shift, directly address the situation. Don’t let too much time (or even another absence) pass in between. Once they return to work, sit down and have a conversation about what happened, why it happened, and what’s expected of them moving forward. Make sure they know if their absence has triggered any type of disciplinary action or a performance plan.

Depending on how long the absence has been, you may even want to hold a formal return-to-work interview. Past research has shown that return-to-work interviews positively impact absence rates and may even work better for small employers. By addressing absences first thing when they return, employees will recognize that their behavior is taken seriously and isn’t sliding by unnoticed.

5. Don’t just treat the symptoms, discover the cause.

Like we talked about earlier, there are valid legal reasons for extended employee absences like FMLA or ADA compliance. For other scenarios, now’s the time to decide where you’ll draw the line. How often can an employee call in on Fridays and Mondays before it triggers formal action? Can they just not seem to make it in on time every other Tuesday? Is one no-show too many?

If you’re noticing a pattern in an employees’ attendance, call it out. Ask them directly why their absences tend to fall on certain days, and use your documentation as evidence. Point out specific times and dates and see how they respond.

You may find out there are other things outside of work impacting your employee’s attendance and leading to excessive absences. There may have been a shift in their daycare schedule which makes it hard to find a babysitter on certain days of the week. They may have started night classes and be struggling to make it in on time in the mornings. In the end, it may not be the employee at all, but their schedule.

If your employees have valid reasoning for excessive absences and their performance is strong otherwise, find a way to correct things together. Create a performance improvement plan, update employee availability forms, and adjust schedules where you can as needed. Set goals for them over the next 30 days—including no more absences or tardiness. But if they’re just missing work to kick off their weekend early, it’s time for some hard decisions.

The key here is not to let things go too far. Hopefully, your new employee attendance policy will flag and correct attendance issues at their start. Keeping an open line of communication with your employees can also help them feel comfortable discussing any issues with their work schedules that could lead to absences.

6. Don’t forget to reward good behavior  

Think back to which of your employees missed work, came in late, or called in sick over the last month. Now, think of the ones who didn’t. Was it harder? Easier? Who stood out more?

In the workplace, absence is often felt more strongly than presence, and for good reason. If someone doesn’t show up to do their job, it puts a strain on the entire team. But what about the employees who do show up on time every day and keep your business running smoothly in the background?

Let’s take a look at the statistics:

Recognizing employees for good attendance and performance can be one of the lowest cost, yet highest impact strategies for your business. While you may want to focus on weeding out the employees with poor performance, you don’t want to lose the great employees you have in the process. Find a way to call out and reward good attendance on a regular basis. Incentivize employees to make the list next month by offering rewards they won’t want to miss, like an extra day off or a chance to choose their own schedule for a week.

There’s no overnight solution when it comes to how to fix employee absenteeism. You’re likely still going to field calls about surprise “food poisoning” or the always-convenient Friday flu. But by implementing a fair employee attendance policy, documenting and tracking attendance patterns, addressing absences when they occur, having an action plan for excessive absenteeism and remembering to call out good attendance as often as the bad, unscheduled absences will start to become the exception, not the rule. You may not be able to solve for every attendance scenario (or bears in the backyard), but you’ll be able to set fresh expectations for your team and have a strategy in place for employee absenteeism moving forward.

The 6-Step Process for Dealing with Employee Absenteeism