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Lead Your Team Leadership

Is Poor Attendance at Work a Reflection of Bad Leadership?

Is Poor Attendance a Reflection on Leadership
Credit: Instantvise/Shutterstock

Having employees who regularly miss work, whether for valid or nonlegitimate reasons, can be a drain on your company's productivity and morale.

You might be inclined to place all of the blame on the absent employees for the negative effects that result from them not showing up. But those in charge may also have to shoulder some of the responsibility.

Mark Marsen, director of human resources at Allies for Health + Wellbeing and a member of the Society of Human Resource Management's HR discipline expertise panel, said that on the surface, employees are responsible for their own actions. If they aren't keeping up with their attendance, then that falls on them. However, if management isn't giving them any reason to change their behavior, then they too are at fault, he said.

"Employers are responsible for determining standards of conduct, communicating those standards, measuring/monitoring them and taking action if standards are not being met," Marsen said. "If leadership is not doing those things, I would say that is a contributing factor to bad behavior and, in all likelihood, a reinforcement of poor standards."

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Doug Blizzard, vice president of CAI Services Corporation, said leadership absolutely has to shoulder some of the responsibility for absenteeism among employees.

"Poor attendance can be a product of managers failing to deal with attendance issues early on," Blizzard said.

Since attendance expectations vary from company to company, it is critical for managers to follow company expectations and deal with attendance issues appropriately and in a timely manner, according to Blizzard.

"Failure to do so does lead to increased absenteeism among all employees – 'Why should I arrive on time when the boss doesn't care?'" he said.

A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that productivity losses from missed work cost employers $225.8 billion, or $1,685 per employee, each year.

In addition to the dip in productivity that comes when an employee regularly misses work, other negatives can impact your business. Marsen said there could be resentment from other employees, which can lead to a lack of respect for the organization and those in charge. In addition, other employees may become so frustrated by seeing peers not held to appropriate attendance standards that they leave.

The last thing you want to do is have issues of absenteeism impact how your company's best performers feel about their work environment.

"Even a loyal, strong performer will grow bitter, stop coming in early or staying late, eventually being absent more, and, ultimately, they will leave," Blizzard said.

Eventually, the problem will trickle down to where your customers are affected. Blizzard said long lines, delayed start times, slow service times, and lower quality as fewer employees struggle to do the work are all ways in which customers feel the pain of an absent employee.

The first step in managing the problem is not to wait for the situation to fester; instead, take a proactive approach.

Marsen encourages managers to have a candid conversation with the absent employee before it develops into a larger issue.

"Explain how their actions are affecting operations, reinforce standards, clearly outline their responsibilities, make sure there is understanding, and ask if they are able to make a commitment to the expectations," he said. "If they cannot, have a longer conversation about the circumstances and what can be done."

Before jumping to conclusions that the employee simply doesn't care about their job, it is important for managers to get a better understanding of what is going on in the employee's life outside of work that could be contributing to the problem. Blizzard said good supervisors get to know their employees.

"Learn about their situations, families, what motivates them, etc.," he said. "This knowledge helps a supervisor make the right decision when attendance starts to slide."

Marsen agrees that it is important to fully understand if there is something going on outside of work, such as a health issue or an issue with a family member, that could be causing the increase in absences – "if not from a sincere desire to be a good human, then at the very least to determine what the business could tolerate with regard to the situation."

Thinking about attendance during the hiring process may be one way to prevent these problems from occurring in the first place. Blizzard said poor attendance can be a sign of poor hiring.

"Many problems we encounter in the workplace are really hiring problems," he said. "We hire employees who don't fit our culture and then try to 'fix' them."

Blizzard said that, while you wouldn't want to directly ask a job candidate about their prior use of protected leave, or questions that might force them to signify a disability, there are other types of questions you can ask during an interview that may help identify someone who has a problem coming to work all of the time. These are some of the questions he says employers may want to consider asking in an interview:

  • When we call your previous employer or references, what are they likely to tell us about your dependability/attendance?
  • How many Mondays or Fridays were you absent last year on leave other than vacation?
  • Our attendance requirements are X. Will you be able to meet them?
  • How many days were you absent from work last year other than vacation?
  • Did you violate any previous employer's attendance requirements?
  • Have you ever been disciplined or counseled at any previous job in the last X years for violating attendance requirements?

Managers should also address what they expect when new employees come on board. Blizzard said bosses shouldn't only rely on the employee handbook to define the company's attendance expectations.

"An employee handbook may spell out broad guidelines, but employees need to know their boss's specific requirements," he said.

As to when and how to discipline employees for poor attendance, research shows the majority of companies have some flexibility. Research from CAI revealed that about 40 percent of companies have very strict "no-fault" attendance policies where a certain number of absences, regardless of reason, calls for a certain course of disciplinary action. On the flip side, 60 percent of companies give managers more leeway as to when to discipline an employee for attendance. 

Blizzard suggests managers issue an initial warning to an employee as soon as they notice an attendance issue. He advises those in charge to remind the employee of the company policy and expectations, and that you care about them and don't want them to get in trouble.

"Many times, early notice will clear up an attendance problem before it becomes a bigger issue," Blizzard said.

If the problem continues, employers that don't have a strict policy specifying what discipline is required eventually have to decide whether it is worth trying to work with the employee to get them on the right track or cut their losses by letting the employee go.

Marsen said there a number of factors he would consider when deciding whether or not it is worth trying to motivate the employee to get beyond their attendance issues, such as if the employee comes to leadership before leadership comes to them to have a talk about what is going on.

The excuses an employee gives for missing work is another factor Marsen thinks is worth considering when deciding if an employee should be fired for absenteeism.

"I think a multitude of excuses, as opposed to one significant factor, is a red flag as far as attendance," he said.

In the end, Blizzard thinks it is imperative that managers don't sidestep what can sometimes be an awkward discussion with an absent employee.

"The worst thing a manager can do is to avoid having these conversations," he said. "Some may be uncomfortable, but if the manager addresses it from a caring perspective first, they normally turn out OK."

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer who has nearly 15 years' experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.