There may be an employee who shows up every day, on time, without fail. But, like a mermaid or a yeti, there’s no concrete evidence that such a creature actually exists.

Why? Because people are human. And assuming you employ actual humans, you will most likely deal with employee absenteeism to some extent.

According to Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, the average absence rate for full-time employees (those working 35+ hours per week) was 2.9% in 2018. This number means that nearly 3% of full-time workers, in a given week, missed at least some work due to an illness, injury, or medical problems; child care issues; other family or personal obligations; civic or military duty; or maternity or paternity leave.

Sound familiar? Absenteeism is more common than you may think. Here are some tried-and-true ways you can increase the odds that your employees will actually show up to work.

Wait, is absenteeism a problem at my business?

Absenteeism happens—and the BLS numbers above also include planned absences, like parental leave. But when does chronic absenteeism start to become a real business problem?

Here are some signs that you need to get a better handle on your employee attendance rates:

  • You’re chronically short-handed, even though you’re fully staffed.
  • Unplanned absences are affecting your ability to properly serve your clients or customers.
  • Long-term, important-but-not-urgent projects are taking too long, or not getting done at all.
  • You start to expect callouts—“I’m not coming in today”—or no-shows from certain employees.
  • Morale is suffering because employees do not feel they can rely on their colleagues to consistently show up and do their jobs.

You have employees who ghost you, meaning they stop coming to work without giving any notice at all.

How to handle employee absenteeism at a small business

The first step to managing absenteeism is managing expectations, in the form of an employee attendance policy and procedure.

1. Add an attendance policy to your employee handbook

The specifics of your attendance policy depend a lot on your particular team and industry, but here are some guidelines for what to include. Attendance, timekeeping, and protected leaves/vacation days overlap to some extent, so some of this information may be spread across one or more policies (which is okay).

Feel free to use the sample language below while building your attendance policy:

  • Regular attendance at work is expected and vital to the success of both the company and the employee personally.
  • Employees must show up on time and stay for their full shifts, unless excused early by a manager.
  • Employees are expected to follow established clock-in and clock-out procedures, return on time from meal and rest breaks, and not punch in early or late. (Only if this applies to the type of business you run.)
  • Employees are expected to notify their manager by [text, phone call, email] as soon as possible when they realize they will be late or unavailable to work as scheduled. If notice is not provided within [timeframe], or not provided at all, that absence will be treated as unexcused. 
  • An excused absence from work is defined as [X]. (This could be a certain amount of notice given or unavoidable emergency, sufficient days available in the leave bank, etc.) 
  • Violations of the attendance policy will be treated according to the company’s progressive discipline policy, up to and including termination. (Some employers base violations on the specific number of unexcused absences or tardy arrivals within a given timeframe, to help with consistent enforcement.)
  • The following documentation is required for an absence to be considered excused: [a doctor’s note for a medical absence of 3 days or more, an official jury duty notice, etc.]
  • Failure to show up for work, without notice or documentation, for a certain number of consecutive days will be considered job abandonment. (Three days is common.)

2. Consider offering a single bank of leave

Your policies should be clear on what types of leave are paid and unpaid.

Many employers have found that having a bank of paid time off (PTO) days instead of separate banks for vacation and sick time can help reduce absenteeism because employees have more freedom to take time as needed. That way, they won’t have to cough up a medical excuse to justify taking a sick day.

3. Watch out for presenteeism (the flip side of absenteeism)

Overly draconian attendance policies can result in what’s known as “presenteeism.”

This is when employees show up to work when they really shouldn’t. Think people coming in when they have the flu, or immediately following the death of a close relative, when really, they should be out on bereavement leave.

Presenteeism, like absenteeism, can hurt employee morale and productivity. It can also facilitate the spread of illness throughout the office when sick employees get other people sick…and the cycle doesn’t stop.

Presenteeism is best managed by example rather than policy and discipline. Business owners, managers, and other supervisors should model good behavior by taking time off as needed and encouraging employees to do the same.

4. Pay attention to legally protected leaves

In enforcing your absenteeism policy, you need to watch out for employees who may have a legal entitlement to leave.

Various state, federal, and local laws provide numerous leave-related protections to employees, including:

The ins and outs of all of these laws are complex, but there are some important takeaways to remember when it comes to employee absenteeism and legally protected leaves:

  • An employee may be protected by one or more of these laws at the same time.
  • Depending on the particular situation, leave may be taken all at once, or it may be taken on an occasional or recurring basis. These intermittent leaves are no less valid or protected. 
  • An employee doesn’t have to know their rights under these laws, or state or request them explicitly, in order to be protected. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), for example, says an employee can request an accommodation (which could include a need for leave) in “plain English” and not mention the ADA at all. 
  • Mental conditions may be covered. A “lazy” employee with a “bad attitude” who is a frequent no-show, for example, may be suffering from depression—a condition that could be protected under the ADA and/or FMLA.
  • Workers may not be disciplined or retaliated against for taking legally protected time off.

5. Find workarounds for when your employees are out

It can be difficult for employers, particularly smaller employers, to work around excessive absenteeism in a cost-effective way.

Depending on your industry, temporary employees may be able to help fill the gaps. It’s also a good idea to cross-train employees so that different people can step into different roles when necessary.

How to minimize preventable absenteeism

As with so many facets of work life, prevention is better (and easier) than remediation.

Here are three high-level actions to take that will both reduce absenteeism and make your business stronger overall:

1. Hire and train employees carefully

When you hire the right people, they are more likely to show up consistently and do a good job. It’s as simple as that.

2. Make your expectations clear, and enforce your attendance policy consistently

If it appears that you don’t care whether employees show up or not, pretty soon your employees won’t care, either.

How much absenteeism is acceptable before an employee is formally disciplined? Let your attendance policy guide you, and make sure you enforce it across the board.

3. Take wellness and engagement initiatives seriously

Healthy employees are happier and more reliable. They’ll feel more loyal to your company, too, if you take an active role in their well-being, whether by offering health insurance and other employee benefits, or embracing more flexible work schedules.

No matter how great your employees are, they’re not going to do your business any good if they’re not showing up—or, on the flip side, showing up when they should be at home taking care of themselves.

A clear, consistently enforced attendance policy helps you clarify expectations and explain the proper procedures for employees to request time off. It also helps you legally discipline folks who just can’t make it to work on a consistent basis so they can, hopefully, turn their behavior around.

Jennifer Carsen Jennifer Carsen is an enrolled agent and recovering employment lawyer. She creates memorable content for small business owners and HR professionals on various topics, including employment law and benefits compliance.
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