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The Cost of Unplanned Absences and How to Handle Them

In an ideal world, you’d know when your employees will be absent weeks or even months ahead of time. We’ve talked in the past about how to best manage planned absences, but just as a quick refresher, make sure all supervisors and direct coworkers are in the loop in regards to the dates your employee will be gone. Also ask the employee to review any upcoming deadlines and fill in their coworkers on any projects in the works.

But what about those other kinds of absences, where you only have a few hours’ notice or no notice?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that unplanned absences cost employers 2.8 million work days last year. Another study conducted by Mercer on behalf of Kronos found that each employee averages 5.4 unplanned absences per year. The bulk of these occur during the winter and summer, both of which have weather that can affect commuters and breaks for kids in school. How can you manage all of these unexpected absences?

As the saying goes, the best defense is a good offense. Send out a memo ahead of time to remind your employees of your attendance policies and any disciplinary actions that might occur should they not adhere to those policies. Encourage your employees to request time off in advance to avoid any disappointments. During the summer or around the winter holidays, you might even consider beefing up your attendance policies with harsher punishments for those who don’t follow the rules. If you do this, make sure you include set dates so your employees know it’s just on a temporary basis.

Here’s a few other tips to help you out with different kinds of absences:

  1. Unplanned absence

    There are always things outside of your control, so these are bound to happen from time to time. If an employee phones in the day of (or night before, if you’re lucky), don’t immediately panic and deny the request. First, figure out if it can be managed. Are there any pressing deadlines or meetings? Can someone else take over the employee’s work for the day? If there’s anything that requires immediate attention, ask if the employee can take a half-day instead, or if there’s some way to telecommute on one or two important things. Before you deny any last-minute requests, consider how the employee might feel or act if he or she is forced to come in to work. If it’s an emergency, your employee’s head won’t be at work, even if he or she is sitting at a desk. Before you decide to discipline an employee because of an unexcused absence, make sure the absence is not for a reason protected by federal, state or local law.

  2. Unannounced absence

    There’s no phone call, e-mail, or employee. Check in with his or her supervisors and coworkers to make sure this wasn’t a scheduling change or out-of-office meeting you weren’t aware of. Then, get in contact with your employee to try to get information as to when or if he or she is coming in. Make sure you document the absence if the employee is out for the day. Inform the rest of his or her coworkers as to the situation and try to handle any damage control. Can anyone take over? Can meetings or deadlines be pushed back? Once your employee shows up, talk to him or her and find out whether the day should be docked as a sick day, vacation day, or an unpaid day. Employees who violate “no-call/no show” procedures without a valid reason should be subjected to formal discipline. Disciplinary action should be applied consistently to similar situations to ensure fairness and avoid discrimination claims.

  3. Mental absence

    Presenteeism issues can be just as bad as absenteeism issues. Maybe your employee is about to leave for vacation. Maybe the weather’s just really great. Maybe he or she is sick and doesn’t want to take time off. Either way, his or her brain is absent and your employee’s just going through the motions. While this can be the sign of a major underlying issue with engagement or motivation, it might also just be one of those days. If it’s not a regular occurrence, try to be patient with your employee. Encourage him or her to do menial tasks in the meantime, like catching up on filing, restocking office supplies, shredding sensitive documents, or organizing office space. If it’s not limited to just one employee, like the day before a 4-day weekend when no one’s head is in the game, try to incentivize your employees to be present in the office. Maybe bring in snacks or let it be a dress down day. If you encourage your employees to come into the office, they’ll be less likely to be out on unplanned or unannounced absences.

If your absenteeism issues aren’t just seasonal, you might want to consider revising your vacation or absence policy. Some employers do a points system, assigning different point values to different offenses. For example, arriving late is one point, an unplanned absence is two points, and an unannounced absence is three points. After six months, if an employee has too many points, then some kind of serious disciplinary action should take place. Other employers choose to reward perfect attendance with bonuses, gift cards, PTO, or some other kind of gift, or they take attendance into consideration when determining promotions or raises. You should also take a look at your organization and make sure it’s not any issues on your end.

Whatever your policies, make sure your employees adhere to them, and always document any kind of absence. We’re halfway through summer now, but Thanksgiving and the rest of the winter holidays will be here before you know it.