Introduction to Attendance Management
February 23, 2003
by J. Talbott, LL.B.
Sick of employees calling in sick? This is a sometimes humorous introductory guide for handling attendance concerns in the workplace. What it is not, however, is a guide to managing employee disability, which is a different ball of wax. Why? Because when you say the word “disability” three keystone cops enter your place of business, blowing whistles and tripping over one another, and announce, “We’re from the Human Rights Commission!”
Attendance management is what managers do when employees are missing work, either with reasonable excuses, or occasionally without a good excuse—for example, when they decide they need a mental health day to watch videos and eat potato chips on company time. Disability management is what managers do when an employee has a long-standing health concern that affects their ability to do his or her job—this may include aspects of attendance, but embraces much wider issues concerning accommodation and human rights.
Not every incident of absenteeism is the same. As a consequence, lawyers, arbitrators, judges, and human resources practitioners have created a whole taxonomy to describe the various forms of absenteeism. Some are common, everyday creatures, and others more exotic and wily. As a manager, you should be able to differentiate the various genii and species of the members of the absenteeism family.
The two major classifications are:
Innocent Absenteeism: This describes absenteeism for good reasons. An employee misses work for a good excuse, such as a cold or flu, for example.
Culpable Absenteeism: This classification describes absenteeism for which the employee bears some responsibility. This, for example, can include old fashioned skipping. It can also, in some cases, embrace self-inflicted injuries such as missing work due to hangovers or accidents caused by the pursuit of an extreme lifestyle (dirt bike racing comes to mind). Also, habitual lateness, without an excuse, and abuse of leave are also forms of culpable absenteeism.
Other labels—sub-species of the above—include:
Pattern absenteeism: An employee misses work regularly. For example, he misses Mondays or Fridays regularly. She misses the day after a holiday weekend regularly. He is one hour late every Tuesday morning. Pattern absenteeism may be culpable if, for example, the employee is clearly creating long weekends for herself. On the other hand, if the employee requires kidney dialysis or psychotherapy every Friday afternoon, it falls under innocent absenteeism or disability management.
Excessive absenteeism: An employee’s absenteeism exceeds a benchmark set by the employer. This is often an organization- or department-wide average. Also, excessive absenteeism may be shown by simply ranking the employees in order of attendance, and showing that the employee of note is far behind the middle of the pack.
Managers from the Planet Where People Regularly Attend Work are at a loss to interact with the life forms that seem unable to attend regularly or punctually. The Prime Directive is the key to coping in these alien situations. Here it is, so pay attention. Never discipline an employee for an action that is beyond his or her control.
This is a simple idea, and if followed religiously, it will steer all managers away from trouble, such as grievances, law suits, human rights claims, and paternity suits. (Well, maybe not the last one.) Discipline is about changing and reforming an employee’s behaviour. So, if an employee has performed a behaviour that the employer does not like, he or she cannot be disciplined if that behaviour is out of the individual’s control.
An employee who misses work for a genuine injury or illness—mental or physical—cannot be disciplined, unless, perhaps, the injury was self-inflicted, such as a hangover. Using a key concept from the taxonomy, above, a manager can now safely state, “An employee should never be disciplined for innocent absenteeism.”
This, of course, leaves the question, “Can a manager discipline an employee for culpable absenteeism?” The answer, in general, is yes, provided you can reasonably prove that the absenteeism was the fault of the employee. A manager should, of course, follow the steps of progressive discipline. And, this will usually start with counselling the employee regarding the employer’s expectations regarding attendance.
Keep in mind that all of the material presented in this guide refers to employees without disabilities. The information given, above, on dealing with innocent absenteeism may, in some cases, apply to disabled employees who are unable to attend work regularly. But, in these cases, managers should examine accommodation measures and long-term disability insurance policies. Get competent professional advice in these situations.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
J. Talbott, LL.B., is a labour lawyer, consultant, and founder of the Ottawa firm, Labour Relations Consultants. He was formerly Director of Human Resources for a unionized, national non-profit organization. His contact information is given below.
||Advice or Training on This Topic