Manager Survival Series: The chronically late or absent employee

When you’re too lenient about lateness or absenteeism, people can take advantage of you—but if you’re too strict, it can damage morale.
By Doug Blizzard

Editor’s note: Managers must cope with a variety of frustrating people issues: unmotivated employees, managing their peers, underperformance, poor attitudes, remote employees, conflict, personal hygiene, interpersonal problems, and communication, to name a few. Over the next few months, HR expert Doug Blizzard will address many of these issues in the “Manager Survival Series.” This is the first column in that series.

One vexing problem many managers often have to contend with is an employee who is chronically late or absent. This issue can quickly become a hornet’s nest: When you’re too lenient about lateness or absenteeism, people can take advantage of you. But if you’re too strict, it can damage morale.

My general philosophy is not to regulate exempt professional employees’ attendance very strictly unless someone gives me a reason to do so. We compensate professionals with a salary for getting a job done regardless of how many hours it takes each week. The more you treat them like hourly employees, the more they will fall into an 8-to-5 mentality, which is not what you want from a salaried employee. I once knew a technical manager who insisted on managing his exempt professionals with an hourly attendance policy. He was flabbergasted when they then demanded overtime pay whenever they stayed late or worked during a weekend. But he was the one who created that 8-to-5 mentality.

Let’s now turn to how to handle the chronically late or absent professional employee in the typical workplace:

Step one for a good manager is to understand the company’s stance on attendance or absenteeism and then fall in line with it. And if an organization doesn’t have such a policy, it should develop one and communicate it to managers. I’ve seen many technically minded managers fail when they attempt to implement their own attendance policy in the absence of a clear company policy.

What about the person who is just sick a lot? A few regulations must be considered, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act (if your firm has 50 or more employees) and potentially the Americans with Disabilities Act (which applies to companies with 15 employees or more). Once you’ve met the terms set by those regulations, you may find that you just can’t continue to employ someone who is chronically absent or late, even if he or she has a legitimate explanation. My advice is to stay focused on job performance. If someone is always calling in sick or late, his or her job performance, as measured by metrics such as project completion, customer satisfaction, effect on other employees, and cost, is suffering. If you need to let an employee go, focus on the employee’s performance and not his or her sickness.

What about the person who is out a lot but really isn’t sick? Think of all the reasons, legitimate and not, for someone to be absent. There are potentially hundreds of scenarios. Do you really want to have to make an individual decision about whether an absence is legitimate every time someone is out? That’s why my advice, absent a clear policy, is to stay focused on job performance when addressing attendance issues with employees (unless the employee is misleading you as to why he or she is out, in which case disciplinary action is usually called for).

But what if the employee’s job performance isn’t suffering? Perhaps some of your “best” employees just don’t like to work on a strict schedule, and you’re concerned they might leave if you lean on them too much. In this situation, look to your company culture and policy. If your firm expects people to work a strict schedule, then you will need to rein in your truant employees or risk getting in trouble yourself. Also, remember that employees who aren’t absent a lot are watching your every move. At some point their attendance may also start to slide if they see you’re ineffective in dealing with absences.

What about consistency? Should you be more lenient with longtime solid performers who get into a temporary bind, or should you treat them the same as you would someone who’s only been working for you for six months? Trying to be 100% consistent with attendance on professional employees is a losing proposition. But the emphasis here is on “temporary”—you can’t be lenient if the problem persists.

What should the disciplinary process be? If you decide it’s time to take disciplinary action, follow your company’s process, or in the absence of one, use the three strikes rule. Talk to the employee about it once, then provide a written warning, then on strike three let the employee go. At each step make it clear what successful attendance looks like and what the consequences are for not improving. And make sure you document every step clearly so you can go back and see a clearly communicated line from offenses to termination.

One policy or two? Am I suggesting you treat exempt employees differently than you do hourly employees? Well, legally they are different. Hourly employees typically only get paid when they work unless you provide them with a paid-time-off benefit. Absent a policy, I would also stay focused on performance with hourly employees when it comes to attendance issues.

Keep those germs out of here! It bears saying that you really don’t want sick employees in your workplace, a situation some call “presenteeism,” meaning that employees are present but unproductive because of an illness (and they are infecting others, making them less productive). And this advice goes for you as the manager when you’re sick: No one wants you there, and you’re setting the wrong example. Work from home if you must.  

Consider that you may be the problem. Your own management style and behaviors can greatly contribute to or reduce employee absenteeism. Poor management causes more employee “sickness.” Choose to be a good manager. Set clear and high expectations, hold people accountable, and treat them like adults. If you do, you’ll be amazed at how those attendance issues go away.  

Doug Blizzard

Doug Blizzard, MBA, is vice president for membership at CAI, a nonprofit employers’ association handling HR, compliance, and people development.


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