Every supervisor and HR pro knows that managing employee time off is a fact of life in the modern workplace. Whether it’s a well-deserved vacation, personal time to attend to family or private business, or sick leave, accommodating an employee’s need for time away from the office is widely accepted as good business practice and an effective retention tool. In some cases, such as FMLA and jury duty, it’s also the law. But when it becomes excessive, employee absenteeism can damage your productivity, profitability, and morale.
Employee absenteeism is generally defined as a circumstance in which an employee is habitually absent or not present during scheduled work hours. The absences can be either scheduled or unscheduled, and exceed the employee’s allotted time off as outlined by company policy and in the employee handbook. In some instances, excessive lateness can also be construed as absenteeism.
Your first and most effective strategy in managing absenteeism is to develop a clearly defined attendance and absence policy, and communicate that policy to new and existing employees via your employee handbook. While the needs of every business and industry will differ, your attendance policy should spell out specific expectations, including a definition of the workday and hours; the amount of sick, personal, and vacation time allotted to employees; and procedures for taking that time. Outline how far in advance employees must notify their supervisors of their intention to take time off, and whether those requests must be approved based on departmental and corporate needs—for example, the need for work coverage during the summer or over holidays. Also explain the procedures for calling in sick, including whom to contact and by what time on a given day. Finally, note whether absences are compensated or not.
For clarification and disciplinary purposes, you may also choose to designate absences as excused or non-excused. Excused absences are those that comply with company policy. They can be scheduled, in the case of vacation, medical appointments, jury duty, funerals, military service, and the like, or unscheduled in the instance of illness or emergency. Unexcused absences are those that are not approved or in which the employee fails to comply with procedures, such as not calling in for a sick day. Of course, some leeway must be used when applying the non-excused designation--for example, when an employee is in the midst of a medical emergency or other crisis.
You should also include an outline of consequences for excessive absenteeism in your policy. This example, in which the employer applies the designation of unexcused absences, outlines a threshold—three in 90 days—and a list of progressive consequences including warnings, counseling, and termination:
Excessive absenteeism is defined as three (3) or more unexcused absences in any ninety (90) day period.
- First offense - written warning and counseling advising that continued excessive absenteeism will lead to subsequent disciplinary action
- Second offense - written warning and counseling advising that continued excessive absenteeism will lead to termination
- Third offense - subject to termination
It is prudent to have your employees sign a written acknowledgement that they have read and understand the policies outlined in your employee handbook. Keep the signed acknowledgements in each employee’s personnel file.
Your efforts to control absenteeism must comply with applicable federal and state laws, including the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act. Under the FMLA, eligible employees of covered employers (generally those with 50 or more employees) are allowed up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a 12-month period for the birth or adoption of a child, to care for an immediate family member with a serious health condition, or when the employee is unable to work because of a serious health condition. The employer is obligated to return the employee to his or her former job or one that is substantially similar at the end of the leave. Leave may be taken intermittently if necessary. Several states also have family or medical leave laws, which may apply to employers with fewer than 50 employees as well as to large employers. In addition, many states require private employers to provide a certain amount of sick leave, either with or without pay, to their employees. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires covered employers (generally those with 15 or more employees) to make “reasonable accommodation” for a qualified employee with a disability. Reasonable accommodation may in some cases mean allowing an employee greater latitude with regard to absences. Be sure to familiarize yourself with any state disability discrimination laws that may apply as well. Employers also need to comply with other federal and state laws granting eligible employees time off from work, including leave for military service, jury duty, and time off for religious observance.
Additionally, you may allow immediate supervisors and department heads a small degree of discretion when managing employee absences, as long as the employee is in good standing and communicating with his or her supervisor. This flexibility accommodates job classifications and departmental needs. Along those lines, you may also offer more time off for exempt management and professional employees who are given more independence and generally often work longer hours. Just be sure that policies are applied consistently and fairly, and that similarly situated employees are treated equally.
Finally, if you haven’t already, consider whether a flexible work option might be a good fit for your company. Flexible work schedules have been proven to reduce absenteeism and employee turnover, and also may assist with recruitment. As such, they can be well worth the time and effort they take to implement. For more information on flexible work schedules, attendance policies, and employee handbooks, visit us online at HR360.com.