What's the most effective way to deal with excessive absenteeism problems?

Commerce Clearing House (CCH) Inc.'s 1999 Unscheduled Absence Survey estimates that excessive absenteeism costs corporate America somewhere in the neighborhood of $600 per employee annually—a hefty toll, considering that not all absenteeism stems from legitimate illnesses. The first place to look when addressing excessive unauthorized absenteeism is your company policy. Many companies place caps on annual sick leave allowances; others refuse to write a policy for fear that the written document will limit their discretion in dealing with employees on a case-by-case basis. Your decision to implement a policy should depend on the frequency of worker absenteeism relative to industry and geographic standards.

In addition, setting policy can be challenging because employers need to determine the parameters of the program:

- Will they measure actual days or ''incidents'' (i.e., an uninterrupted series of days off from the same sickness or injury)?

- Do they believe that a no-fault or an excuse-based system will be more effective?

- Will a rolling year or a calendar year serve as the optimal performance measurement time period?

Beyond the nuts and bolts of your written policy, your past practice must also be closely examined. If you re inconsistent in the application of your organization's rules, a judge or arbitrator may determine that your fickle actions could justify a claim of discrimination or retaliation from a terminated worker.

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How much time off is considered excessive? There s no easy answer, but juries typically consider one sick day per month, or twelve days a year, as a threshold. More than that and it s likely that the discharge will be sustained; less than that and a plaintiff attorney may convince a jury that your decision to terminate was premature and possibly just a pretext.

Fixing the problem can be accomplished in three steps:

1. Review your organization s written policy with the help of legal counsel in order to ensure that you ll be able to retain the most discretion in managing this thorny issue.

2. Review your organization's past practices (for example, all of the disciplinary actions and terminations related to unauthorized absence in the past two years) across departments, divisions, and locations. Account for inconsistencies in prior decisions. Remember that you retain the discretion to change a policy or practice by notifying employees in advance and in writing: You re not obliged to perpetuate a problem once you discover that changing the rule or practice could make things better. Simply follow a rule of reason: If employees are given advance notice of the organization s changed expectations, they should be held accountable for meeting the new standard on a go-forward basis.

3. Document substandard performance consistently.

A sample documentation letter appears in Appendix Q.

List the dates and days of the week of the actual incidents. In addition, document the negative organizational impact that resulted from the individual s unauthorized absenteeism.

Finally, if your policy does not spell out the specific number of incidents that could lead to termination, include general consequential language. On the other hand, if your company policy spells out the number of incidents of unscheduled absenteeism that will result in dismissal, include that specific information instead.

How do I handle employees who pattern their unauthorized absences around their regularly scheduled weekends?

The definition of a ''pattern'' is a frequent, predictable, and observable employee action that repeats itself over time. When employees take more than 50 percent of their time off around weekends or holidays, then a pattern may be established. (In the example in Appendix Q, the employee took four of five days off on a Monday or a Friday; thus, 80 percent of his unscheduled absences occurred around the weekend.) Just remember that this 50 percent rule isn't a legal definition; it is, instead, a reasonable company rule that you may wish to establish.

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''Patterning,'' in this author's opinion, is a separate infraction from unscheduled absenteeism. Consequently, it should be handled separately in the written warning. Simply create two headings in the written warning:

Issue 1: Excessive, unauthorized absenteeism

Issue 2: ''Patterning incidents of unscheduled absenteeism around regularly scheduled time off

Sample wording for this separate section is included in Appendix Q. With these progressive discipline tools in hand, you should be successful in minimizing further incidents of ''patterning, because most employees will avoid this perception problem once it s been brought formally to their attention.

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