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Addressing Excessive Unplanned Absenteeism: Luck Has Nothing To Do With It

It’s Monday morning, March 18th and you start to receive multiple calls from employees saying they’re sick…cough…cough…  Sound familiar?  Chances are, you’re one of the three in four U.S. employers who say they see an uptick in unplanned absences before or after holidays, weekends, and large sporting events.  According to a study conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), when asked if they notice higher rates of absenteeism surrounding these occurrences, a whopping 72% of employers responded “yes.”  So, what can employers do to try and curb these types of unplanned absences?

Offer adequate time off.

Work/life balance.  It’s not just a catchy HR phrase, it’s a major contributing factor for employee engagement, productivity, and can have a tremendous impact on recruitment and retention efforts.  When employers aren’t offering competitive paid time off programs, they see that not only are they losing potential employees to their competitors, but the employees that they do hire have significantly lower productivity and higher rates of unplanned absenteeism.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 76% of private employers provide paid time off/vacation days; the average number of days provided after one year of employment is 10.  From a business perspective, if employers are seeing high turnover and/or absenteeism, they should look at their paid time off/vacation programs and determine if they are offering competitive benefits. 

Track absences.

It seems that this would be a given, but many employers struggle with not consistently tracking employee absences.  What’s often at the root of the problem is not that employers don’t have methods or policies in place, but instead, that managers are unaware of the specifics of the policies and/or are not held accountable for properly tracking and addressing employee absenteeism issues.  So, what can be done if your company already has established policies and procedures?  First, ensure that employees are made aware of your attendance policies upon hire.  Once a pattern of calling in last minute is established, it’s hard to break.  If employees are made aware that the employer is consistent in addressing the issue, they’re less likely to test the waters.  In addition, employers should ensure that managers understand how and when they should report and/or address unplanned employee absences.  Managers should receive a refresher training annually on the expectations around employee coaching, documentation, progressive discipline, and leave administration. 

Communicate early and often. 

Put employees on notice.  It’s amazing how effective it is to address the issue before it becomes an issue.  We have seen that when employers communicate with employees and remind them to take paid time off/vacation appropriately around upcoming holidays, they see a decrease in unplanned absences.  In addition, having a provision in the handbook regarding non-exempt employees’ holiday pay (when applicable) if there’s an unplanned paid time off/vacation day before or after the holiday can help to curb absences.  HR Works’ handbook policy states: “To receive holiday pay, eligible non-exempt employees must work their scheduled shift before and after the holiday. Exceptions may be made in cases of bona fide illness or vacations which have been approved in advance.” This means that if a non-exempt employee calls in before or after a holiday, he or she will not receive holiday pay.  When employees understand and are reminded of this policy, they are more likely to plan accordingly and use a planned paid time off/vacation day, which generally costs companies less in indirect costs than unplanned absences and allows for the employer to ensure that staffing needs are met.

What to Consider? 

Leave Protections. With increased attention paid to absences, you’ll want to ensure that you don’t inadvertently create any compliance issues with how absenteeism is addressed.  First, be sure that managers understand how and when to address unplanned absences that may be related to medical issues.  It’s important that employees are not penalized for absences that should otherwise be protected by applicable FMLA, or state leave laws, and/or Americans with Disabilities Act protections.

Leave Policies.  Where we have seen some issues arise is when there are overly restrictive “no fault” attendance policies that may discriminate against individuals with disabilities.  Attendance policies that mandate progressive discipline or termination after a certain number of missed days may pose a compliance concern if the missed days are related to a qualified disability.  Ultimately, managers should recognize that employees who are approaching the maximum number of allowable missed days should not necessarily be disciplined if their absences are related to the disability as the employer may be required to consider leave as an accommodation.  And as always, when in doubt, managers should know that they need to consult Human Resources.   

Pay Protections. Notice that HR Works’ handbook language regarding employees losing holiday pay when there is an unplanned absence specifically states that it applies to “eligible non-exempt employees.”  This is because it’s not necessarily as cut and dry when the same situation occurs with an exempt employee. Ultimately, it’s important to ensure that exempt employees are paid in accordance with the Fair Labor Standards Act.  With regard to deducting pay for an exempt employee who has an unplanned absence due to sickness, an employer may do so only when a full day is missed and bona fide paid sick-leave plan in place that the employee is not yet eligible to participate in or the employee has exhausted his or her leave.

Need help?

Clients who have access to the HR Helpline have a variety of tools available to them to assist with leave tracking and, when appropriate, progressive discipline.  In addition, HR Works will be hosting an “HR Bootcamp” on May 1st and 2nd which covers many of the topics discussed in this article.  Providing managers and HR staff with training on risk mitigation is the number one defense against costly issues that arise when an employer’s luck runs out!

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HR Works, headquartered in Upstate New York, is a human resource management outsourcing and consulting firm serving clients throughout the United States for over thirty years. HR Works provides scalable strategic human resource management and consulting services, including: affirmative action programs; benefits administration outsourcing; HRIS self-service technology; full-time, part-time and interim on-site HR managers; HR audits; legally reviewed employee handbooks and supervisor manuals; talent management and recruiting services; and training of managers and HR professionals.