How To Write An Employee Attendance Policy That’s Fair To Everyone

In this article, you’ll dive into the details of crafting a fair and effective employee attendance policy. You’ll understand why such a policy is essential, how it impacts both employees and the business, and the steps to create one that resonates with your company culture and values. The article emphasizes the importance of empathy, clear communication, and consistency in ensuring that attendance policies are both fair and effective.

Key takeaways:

  • An employee attendance policy sets clear and consistent expectations, reducing absenteeism and enhancing productivity.
  • It’s crucial to consider the company culture and real-world scenarios when drafting the policy to ensure it’s realistic and fair.
  • Simplicity is key—definitions for absences, tardiness, no-shows, and sick days should be straightforward and easy to understand.
  • Employee feedback and buy-in are essential for the successful implementation of the policy.
  • An attendance policy should be empathetic, taking into account the challenges of everyday life and treating employees with respect and understanding.

Running a few minutes behind? Slept through your alarm clock? Got stuck in traffic? It happens to the best of us. In fact, more than 1 in 4 workers admit to showing up late to work at least once a month.

But when it comes to employee attendance, even the small things can begin to add up. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), productivity losses linked to absenteeism cost U.S. employers $225.8 billion annually, or $1,685 per employee in 2015. Although it may be an unexpected absence once a month or a shift missed here and there, individual employee attendance can have big implications for your bottom line.

Why is an employee attendance policy essential?

An employee attendance policy is a documented set of rules designed to improve employee productivity, reduce absenteeism, and set clear and consistent expectations for employees.

For many small businesses without an HR department, an employee attendance policy can seem a bit formal. Shouldn’t everyone be aware of their responsibilities? Absolutely. But as your business begins to scale or you take on more workers for the busy season, a fair attendance policy for employees is crucial to protect both you and your employees and keep business running smoothly.

Key components of an effective employee attendance policy

Here are some tips to help you create your attendance policy for work:

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1. Take into account your current work culture

Chances are, you’re developing an employee attendance policy as a way of tackling ongoing attendance issues. Your employees may have gotten lax about showing up on time, forget to call in until after their shift starts, or simply take the lack of an attendance policy for granted. Still, it’s important to remember that an attendance policy won’t change employee behavior overnight, and may require a foundational shift in company culture.

That’s right— employee attendance is part of your company culture. And no matter whether your business employs five people or fifty, the way you interact together shapes your team’s culture and way of working. Your culture includes values, norms, systems, symbols, language, assumptions, beliefs, and habits—like how often your employees show up on time.

So before you start writing an attendance policy, talk to your managers and shift leads about their current approaches and expectations for employee attendance. If one shift lead is fine with a slow start and another expects everyone on the floor right on the hour, it sends a mixed message. Employees who clock in during slower shifts may not see the problem with running five minutes behind compared to staff who are all-hands-on-deck the moment they arrive in the morning. Is there a current baseline or shared expectations, or does the approach to employee attendance vary shift to shift and manager to manager?

There may also be other cultural factors behind the scenes impacting employee attendance: if many of your employees have families and young children, they likely also have to juggle emergencies or family absences, and a zero-tolerance attendance policy would quickly put them out of a job. Or, your new part-time summer staff may be coming in right after school for the next few weeks, and can’t make it on the dot with traffic. Attendance could even be a symptom of your workplace’s scheduling habits.

Your company culture is as unique as your employees. And while no attendance policy can account for every unique scenario, it should be based in reality and create realistic expectations for your workers.

2. Keep things simple

On paper, an attendance policy sounds straightforward—not showing up to work is an absence, and everyone needs to be present at work to keep business up and running. But is an “absence” different from a “no-show”? Is it different from “tardiness”? What if an employee shows up an hour late compared to five minutes late? Are they treated the same?

An employee attendance policy can quickly start to spin out of hand, resulting in a binder-size document that’s hard to read and even harder to remember. Instead of going scenario-by-scenario, stick to common employee attendance topics and define expectations for them in plain-language everyone can understand: absences, unscheduled absences, tardiness, no-shows, and sick days.

  • Absence: manager is notified by employee X days/weeks in advance that employee will be absent from shift.
  • Unscheduled absence: manager is notified by employee X hours in advance that employee will be absent from shift, due to emergency or other unexpected cause.
  • Tardiness: employee shows up at least X minutes after scheduled shift start.
  • No-show: employee fails to show up for shift without notifying management.
  • Sick days: employee is absent from shift due to illness or doctor’s note.

Quick note: Why differentiate a “sick day” from an “absence”? It may sound counterintuitive, but building in a separate category for sick days can actually help employee morale and your bottom line, especially if you’re in the food service industry.

The CDC estimates that sick food handlers are responsible for 53% of norovirus outbreaks—leading to more employee illness and more time off. Consider building in a separate sick day category in your attendance policy so that you and your staff can remain healthy, and sick employees won’t come into work in an effort to avoid a more serious unscheduled absence strike on their performance record. In some states, separate paid sick leave may also be the law.

Whatever attendance categories you choose, their definitions should mean the same thing to all employees and be as objective as possible. A manager should be able to differentiate an absence from a tardiness when they see one, and employees should easily understand where their behavior falls under the attendance policy.

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3. Include realistic disciplinary actions for each scenario

Now that you’ve defined your attendance policy categories, it’s time to define what happens next. For an attendance policy to be fair, it’s important that disciplinary actions aren’t just based on personal beliefs or individual expectations. It’s not fair to good employees to enact a zero-tolerance attendance policy “just because.” And while you personally might feel that running five minutes or thirty minutes late is the same degree of unacceptable employee behavior, the actual impacts on your business may not be so equal.

Instead, take a look at two things: the effect different attendance behaviors currently have on your business, and attendance averages for your industry. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, full-time employees had an overall absence rate of 2.8, or almost three absence “instances” per year in 2017. The average absence rate for service occupations was even higher, at 3.4 absences per year. So if you’re guesstimating 3-4 unscheduled absences per year as an acceptable range, you’re not far off the mark.

Once you’ve done some benchmarking, tie your attendance policy’s disciplinary components to business impact. If every minute counts in a high-volume shift, 30 minutes could have the same impact as an absence. If an employee has to miss work unexpectedly and can’t find a fill-in, their absence may have the same severity as a no-show. In that case, your attendance policy could state:

  • Tardiness: employee shows up at least five minutes after scheduled shift start.
  • If employee shows up later than 30 minutes after shift start time, tardiness will be counted as a no-show.
  • After three tardies, employee will be subject to disciplinary action.
  • Unscheduled absence: manager is notified by employee X hours in advance that employee will be absent from shift, due to emergency or other unexpected cause.
  • Employee is responsible for notifying supervisor and finding a fill-in for shift. If employee cannot find a fill-in, absence will be counted as a no-show.
  • After three unscheduled absences, employee will be subject to disciplinary action.

4. Get employee sign-off

Once you’ve put together a first draft of your attendance policy, it’s time to revisit step #1: share it with your employees and get their buy-in. Depending on the size of your team, you may want to only loop in leadership or give all employees a chance to add input. Even a simple gut check will do—does anything sound out of place to your managers? Anyone feel that certain categories are unrealistic? Does it seem objective?

An attendance policy is meant to help keep your business running smoothly day-to-day, not trigger more chaos. Although there may be some resistance to change (especially if there wasn’t a formal policy in place already), good attendance should feel like a team effort and a way to help everyone work better. If your employees immediately react poorly, feel called out, or think any disciplinary measures are too aggressive, listen to their feedback. Pay attention to similar responses—if more than one employee thinks you should be more flexible in certain areas, see if you can reach a compromise and go back to the drawing board together.

More importantly, incorporating employee feedback into your attendance policy also increases its chances of success. When asked what motivates them to go above and beyond at work, employees ranked “camaraderie and peer motivation” first. Peers, not money, were found to be the main source of influence on employee performance and behavior. Knowing their coworkers, not just their managers, helped develop the attendance policy can go a long way in getting employees on board and keeping each other accountable.

5. Treat others how you would want to be treated

At the end of the day, a fair employee attendance policy should be one you’d be content to work under yourself. Don’t shy away from the hard questions: how often do you personally show up to work later than you planned? Are you always able to call ahead and let your employees know you won’t arrive within the policy timeline? How many emergencies pop up throughout the week that pull you away from work? Can you always notify your team a week in advance that you’ll need to be out of the office for a day?

As you’re putting together your new employee attendance policy, don’t forget the most important factor: empathy. If you can’t comply with your business’s attendance policy, it’s not fair to expect your employees to either. And although employee absences and poor attendance can be frustrating, it’s not possible to predict emergencies. Sometimes, the unexpected just happens, no matter how well you plan. The alarm clock doesn’t go off. Traffic is worse than usual. The babysitter calls in sick. You can’t find your keys. You catch the bug that’s going around at work.

Ideally, a fair employee attendance policy allows for some wiggle room—within reason. As you build your policy, you can assign different degrees of seriousness depending on your workplace culture and what makes sense for your business. Not all absences (and not all attendance policies) are equal. Instead, a fair policy creates a standard to track performance and reinforces one of the most important workplace values: respect for each other, and each other’s time.

Benefits of implementing a strong employee attendance policy

Improved productivity and efficiency

When your employees know exactly what to expect if they need to be late or absent, they won’t be so stressed out when the rare emergency does pop up. Less stress makes for happier, more productive employees who can focus on their job instead of worrying about what random discipline might come from their attendance issue. 

Enhanced workplace culture and employee morale

You don’t want to have a workplace where employees gossip about the one person who’s always late and never gets in trouble, or the coworker who calls out once a week and has never been disciplined. That type of culture and morale can drive away workers quickly—an attendance policy ensures everyone is treated fairly can increase team camaraderie, which in turn helps improve retention. 

Reduced costs associated with absenteeism and turnover

A fair attendance policy leaves room for the challenges of everyday life, which helps keep workers on your team. Knowing they’ll be treated with empathy and dignity means your employees will work with you on attendance issues, instead of giving up and finding somewhere new to start over. 

Implementation and communication of attendance policy for employees 

Now that you’ve written a great attendance policy that has support from some of your employees, it’s time to implement and share it more broadly with your team. First, you want to make sure that it’s in writing where everyone has easy access to it, like in the employee handbook or with your onboarding materials. Then you’ll want to train your team—give them a little background on why you need a policy, how it was developed, and share with them the final product. And finally, be sure you and your managers are on the same page on how to enforce the policy.

Creating an effective attendance policy: A must-have for every business

An effective employee attendance policy will help you manage the problem of absenteeism and tardiness, but with empathy and respect for your employees. It’s one way to develop a healthy workplace culture and better morale, which in turn increases employee satisfaction and decreases costly turnover.

Looking for one more easy way to keep things fair for your employees?  An employee time clock app can eliminate rounding up and human error while instilling a sense of justice in the workplace.

Attendance policy FAQs

What is the primary purpose of an attendance policy?

An attendance policy is a documented set of rules designed to improve employee productivity, reduce absenteeism, and set clear and consistent expectations for employees.

What factors should be considered when drafting an attendance policy?

When creating an attendance policy, it’s essential to consider the company’s current work culture, the real-world scenarios employees face, and the overall impact of attendance behaviors on the business. It’s also crucial to keep the policy simple, clear, and easy to understand.

How can an attendance policy be made fair and effective?

For an attendance policy to be fair, it should be based on the actual impacts of different attendance behaviors on the business and should be benchmarked against industry averages. It should also be empathetic, allowing for some flexibility and understanding of everyday challenges employees might face.

Why is employee feedback important in the creation of an attendance policy?

Incorporating employee feedback ensures that the attendance policy is rooted in reality and creates realistic expectations. It also increases the chances of successful implementation, as employees are more likely to adhere to a policy they had a say in and feel is fair.

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