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Control of absenteeism: quick fixes vs. cures.

A cash bonus for good attendance is a fine way to raise costs while accomplishing nothing. Better approaches take more time,but they work.

On any given day, about one million American workers fail to show up for work. Some are sick, some on vacation, but many are absent because they just do not feel like coming in. The average worker chooses to join this invisible army for five to 12 days each year.

Unexcused absence is the most common disciplinary problem, and it is expensive. The cost to one giant corporation alone, General Motors, is estimated to be about $ 1 billion a year.'

The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that 3 percent is a " reasonable" absentee rate (hours absent/work hours paid x 100) and 2 per cent, the minimum attainable. General Motors posts rates of up to II per cent. Figures for health care industries vary. Taylor cites 4 per cent for medical organizataions, but in a 1986-87 surnizations, but in a 1986 vey of 475 hospitals, Markowich found absenteeism averaged only 2.68 per cent.

Absentee rates vary inversely with educational attainment and family income. It is higher in blue collar workers, younger people, and night shift employees . Participation in the invisible army is highest on Mondays and Fridays and just before and after vacations or holidays. It is low on payday and high the day after.

There are four major reasons employees join the invisible army: 1) They dislike their duties, the rewards, the job environment, or the organization's policies; 2) they do not like their boss or their co-workers; 3) the reward of taking time off is not counterbalanced by any great risk of a penalty; or 4) they have personal problems to contend with.

Employers must assume the blame for absenteeism that is pervasive, affecting all departments. Lower level managers and supervisors play only secondary roles. Chief executive officers should, but usually do not, ferret out the causes of poor attendance before selecting remedies. Admittedly, employers who cannot pay competitive wages are handicapped. Organizations like G.M. can afford to pay more to overcome the dehumanizing effect of assembly lines.

Management experts have pointed out that employees of well-run companies show up regularly for work. The seeming answer to absenteeism, then, would be to make sure the organization is well run. Executives usually opt for quick fixes, however, rather than the more difficult and sometimes embarrassing task of remodeling the way they run their organizations.

To curb absenteeism, new nostrums are proposed and quickly adopted every year. Most of the success claims are anecdotal, with little or no statistical validity. These quick fixes usually provide only transient or partial improvement and delay facing up to what really needs to be done: to improve employee morale and motivation. Let's focus on some of the popular interventions.

Discipline is still the most widely used measure despite the fact that organizations relying on it as their only method of control have higher than average absence rates.

General Motors found that a cash bonus system developed to increase productivity actually raised the cost of making cars. The $400 million in bonuses turned out to be bribes for showing up to work; they did not affect absenteeism. The bonus proponents said maybe the outlays were not large enough to influence the company's well-paid employees.

Lottery schemes, in which employees with good attendance records are eligible to win cash or other prizes, are currently popular . One hospital reported this system reduced absenteeism from 3.99 per cent to 2.56 per cent. Employees returned to their old noshow habits as soon as the lottery was discontinued, however.

One of the more effective schemes is the so-called no-fault or point system. With this method, there are no excused or unexcused absences, just absences. Each is recorded as one occurrence, regardless of length. For example, a one-week absence counts as a single occurrence, but a worker absent on Monday and Friday is charged with two occurrences. Chronic offenders tend to take off single days, not a week at a time. Therefore, this policy avoids penalizing the employee who is really sick and must be away for several consecutive days, and punishes those who have a lot of one-day absences.

Some policies follow the old caffot-and-stick approach, as illustrated in Figure 1. These policies, however, appear to be more effective in rewarding employees who have good attendance records than in motivating chronic offenders.

Other policies actually encourage the abuse of sick leave. For example, organizations that have paid sick leave programs experience about twice as much absenteeism as those that do not. When employers ignore sick leave abuses, resentment builds up among employees who have to do the work of absent co-workers.

Although first-line supervisors and department chiefs have little control over corporate policies and management philosophy, they can report oppressive policies and fight for better working conditions and employee rewards. Their two major roles are to prevent excessive absences by practicing good leadership and implementing policies, and to coach, counsel, and discipline chronic offenders.

Policies on absenteeism will not work if they are not communicated. It is not enough to announce them during orientation programs. Discuss them periodically at staff meetings. Supplement your discussion with facts and figures on the costs of absenteeism, and explain how employees with good attendance records feel about no-shows.

Remind the staff that the sick leave policy represents insurance, not another time-off benefit. Also emphasize that good attendance is a condition of employment.

Keep attendance records. These should show not only the number of days absent and the reason, but also the days of the week and the relationship to holidays, vacations, or payday.

In addition, policies should be enforced equitably. Do not make exceptions, including yourself and your high performers. Employees are impressed more by what they see than what they are told. If you show up on days when it is obvious you are not feeling well, it will not go unnoticed by others.

Furthermore, you must be consistent. Do not ignore abuses when things are running smoothly, then crack down when your work group is short-handed. It is also important not to pick on poor performers or those you dislike.

A caveat: Never accuse anyone of excessive absences unless the attendance policy has been violated. This means you must know exactly what the policy spells out.

Employers should insist on prior discussion of necessary absences for personal reasons rather than accept explanations after the absence.

Require employees who call in sick to talk directly to you. Question them about their illness. Ask if medical help is needed, how long they expect to be absent, and if there is anything you can do. Tell them they will be missed, and do not sound skeptical. When they return, welcome them back and inquire about the trouble. Ask if they are feeling well, and listen carefully if they seem to need someone to talk to.

Show concern even for Joe, a chronic abuser of sick leave. Do not react emotionally, nag, or use sarcasm. This will not get positive results. Use rational, unemotional statements such as: "Joe, you've missed two Mondays this month. You're one of our best workers when you're here. What can we do to help?"

Being considerate does not mean being gullible. Do not accept wishy-washy remarks like "I just didn't feel well" or "It was my allergy acting up." Ask what the employee did about it. Record the reasons given and offer suggestions. Here are some actual reasons reported by Robert Half, a New York-based employment specialist: "Someone stole one of my shoes on the bus." "I thought Halloween was a holiday." "I spotted what looked like a flying saucer, and I followed it for about 50 miles."

Even when intervention techniques improve overall attendance in the laboratory, some nonresponders will require individual attention. Those who still won't improve attendance must be fired.

A chronic offender continues because the behavior presents a high ratio of reward to risk. This may be on a conscious or unconscious level. If Nancy can have several extra days to go shopping, get out of unpleasant assignments, or provoke her boss without incurring any penalties, why should she stop calling in sick? Management's goal is to reduce the reward for such behavior and/ or increase the risk.

The reward can be reduced by calling Nancy at home sometime during the day to find out if she is feeling better (and to learn if she is really at home), while saving the unpleasant chores for her return or giving the choice weekly assignments to others on the day she's out. The risk increases when she sees you noticed her absence, or when you inform her that attendance affects performance ratings or that her job is in jeopardy.

Despite your best efforts, excessive absences may continue. If so, take the following preparatory measures:

Study the attendance record of the employee. Note the pattern as well as the number of absences. To insure you are not picking on someone, compare his or her record with those of other workers.

Review the absentee policy and any supplemental information provided by the Human Resources Department. Most hospitals have guidelines on how to proceed in these cases. Some employers correlate attendance with performance ratings. See Figure II for one such example.

Select an appropriate time and place for counseling.

Gather all the necessary records and copies of the attendance policy.

Rehearse the agenda for the counseling session. Chronic offenders have been through this before. If you are inexperienced, they will run circles around you. Be prepared for glib excuses, pleas for sympathy, anger, tears, and threats. Have your responses ready. For example, what are you going to do if Joe bolts out of the room in the middle of the meeting? What will you say to Sally if she starts sobbing or just clams up and will not utter a word?

If you suspect alcohol or drugs are a factor, rehearse the exact words you will use to diplomatically persuade the employee to seek professional counseling or visit the coordinator of the employee assistance program. Do not accuse the employee of substance abuse. Stick to performance.

Here are some procedures to follow when counseling a habitual offender:

1. Define the problem. Say there is a problem, not that he or she has one. Start with an "I" statement: "Joe, I'm concerned about the number of days that we are without your services."

2. Get the employee's explanation. Do not interrupt. Do not pass judgment on the statements, however farfetched. Just listen.

3. Insist that the employee agree there is a problem. Do not proceed until Joe has been persuaded that what he is doing is creating a problem. Do not let him slide off the hook with "Why pick on me, what about Sue?" or "What's the big deal, I more than make up for it by working more efficiently than the others."

4. Get him to solve his problem. Say exactly what you expect and that how to meet that expectation is up to him. Do not accept vague solutions like "I'll try harder. " Tell Joe what will happen if there is no improvement.

5. Close on a positive note. Repeat what must be done. Thank the employee for coming up with a plan of action and for participating in the discussion. Express confidence in his or her ability to implement the plan.

6. Follow up. You may be so relieved to get the meeting over with that you dismiss the matter from your mind and assume the problem is solved. This is a grievous error. Joe will be convinced it was not important.

Keep tabs on Joe's record. Provide him with positive reinforcement. If there is no improvement, take the necessary disciplinary measures. Many other employees are watching intently.

Figure 1 Positive Interventions for reducing absenteeism (the carrot)

Buy-back policy. Employee is paid for all or part of unused sick leave.

Paid time off for good attendance,

Cash bonus.

Coffee and doughnuts for employees who show up on time.

Lottery prize chances for good attendance,

Personal recognition-praise from manager, name in newsletter or on bulletin board, plaque or prize, being honored before

peers,lunch with the CEO.

Negative interventions (the stick)

Disciplinary measures.

Proof of illness; i.e. , note from physician.

Reduction in number of paid sick days.

No pay for absences just before or after vacations or holidays.

Attendance affects performance appraisal rating.
COPYRIGHT 1988 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Umiker, William O.
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Aug 1, 1988
Words:2082
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