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The Role of the Supervisor in Managing Absenteeism

Address Unscheduled Absences to Reduce Absenteeism


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Cultura/Seb Oliver/ Riser/ Getty Images

According to a recent CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey, employers are losing ground when it comes to keeping workers on the job. Unscheduled absenteeism rates have risen to their highest level since 1999. What continues to be of most concern is that almost two out of three employees who don’t show up for work aren’t physically ill.

For most companies, the responsibility for managing absenteeism has fallen primarily on immediate supervisors. These supervisors are often the only people who are aware that a certain employee is absent. They are in the best position to understand the circumstances surrounding an individual’s absence and to notice a problem at an early stage. Therefore, their active involvement in the company’s absence procedures is pivotal to the overall effectiveness and future success of an absence policy or program.

Sadly, however, most supervisors have not received any guidance or training in managing absenteeism. They have been left on their own to carry out the often unpopular task of identifying, confronting and resolving absence abuse.

To ensure that supervisors are comfortable and competent in their role of managing absenteeism, they need to have the full support of senior management. All parties must be aware of the aim of absence policies and procedures. Should there be discrepancies between departments; a policy can lose its effectiveness.

To provide more consistency, supervisors should be trained in their responsibilities about managing absenteeism, advised how to conduct effective return-to-work interviews, and educated in the use of disciplinary procedures when necessary.

The Responsibilities of the Supervisor

In addition to ensuring that work is appropriately covered during the employee’s absence, there are a number of other critical actions that supervisors need to take to manage absenteeism. They should:
  • ensure that all employees are fully aware of the organization’s policies and procedures for dealing with absence,
  • be the first point of contact when an employee phones in sick,
  • maintain appropriately detailed, accurate, and up-to-date absence records for their staff, (e.g., date, nature of illness/reason for absence, expected return to work date, doctor’s certification if necessary),
  • identify any patterns or trends of absences which cause concern,
  • conduct return-to-work interviews, and
  • implement disciplinary procedures where necessary.

The Return-to-Work Interview

The training of supervisors in how to best manage absenteeism should include instruction on how to conduct effective and fair return-to-work interviews. Recent national surveys indicate that these interviews are regarded as one of the most effective tools for managing short-term absenteeism1.

The return-to-work discussion will enable the supervisor to welcome the employee back to work, in addition to demonstrating management’s strong commitment to controlling and managing absenteeism in the workplace. The interview will enable a check to be made that the employee is well enough to return to work.

The necessary paperwork can be completed, so that the absence and its conclusion are properly recorded. The fact that an established procedure is in place to investigate and discuss absence with an employee may, on its own, act as a deterrent for non-attendance for disingenuous reasons.

Interviews need to be carried out as promptly as possible following the absentee’s return to work (no later than one day after his or her return). The employee should be given ample opportunity to outline the reasons for his or her absence. The supervisor should use the interview as a time to explore any issues that the employee may have which are leading to absence.

The goal is to foster an open and supportive culture. The procedures are in place to make sure that help and advice is offered when needed and to ensure that the employee is fit to return to work. Employees will usually appreciate the opportunity to explain genuine reasons for absence within a formalized structure. Should the supervisor doubt the authenticity of the reasons given for absence, he/she should use this opportunity to express any doubts or concerns.

At all times, the employee must be aware that the interview is not merely part of company procedures, but a significant meeting during which the absence has been noted and may have implications for future employment. The company’s disciplinary procedure, in the event of unacceptable levels of absence, should be explained to the employee.

The manager may choose to outline how the absence affected the department. The message should be that the employee was missed and that productivity suffered. The manner in which the department was required to reorganize staffing arrangements might also be explained. This would demonstrate that the efficiency of the work unit was adversely affected by the absence.

The supervisor should then brief the returning employee about the current situation (i.e., what tasks are now priorities, what work has already been carried out and where the employee should now focus his/her efforts).

At no point during the meeting should the interview become a form of “punishment,” but should be seen as an occasion to highlight and explain the repercussions of absence within the department. The vast majority of employees derive a sense of pride and achievement from their work and management should be encouraged to treat these individuals as responsible adults.

Most employees understand reasonable rules and do not want to be threatened into compliance. The small percentage of employees who indeed have an absence problem will require close supervision and possibly even punitive measures for excessive absenteeism. These few employees who are irresponsible should be handled individually and firmly.

The following guidelines outline the recommended steps to be taken in cases where short-term absence is considered to be above an acceptable level in a particular period of time.

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