Sunday Business Post – Recruitment Pages – March 16 2008
Absenteeism is costing Irish business more than €1.1 billion a year. Firms must create good morale and proper procedures to deal with an ever-increasing nuisance, writes Dermot Corrigan.
Absenteeism is costing Irish business more than €1.1 billion per annum and this sum continues to rise every year, according to research compiled by Isme, the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association.
“The cost of absenteeism to Irish business has doubled in the last couple of years,” said ISME chief executive Mark Fielding. “This has happened because of an increase in the number of the days lost per person, the fact that there are more people working now than there were a few years ago, and the fact that people are earning more.”
In December, Isme surveyed over 2,000 small and medium-sized companies, employing a total of more than 50,000 employees, and found that employees were absent for an average of eight days annually, excluding holidays and other authorised absences. Less than half of these unauthorised absences were due to legitimate reasons, according to Fielding.
“Unauthorised absenteeism is where people just take days off without a sick note or without getting permission,” said Fielding. “We asked owner-managers whether they thought malingering was taking place, and they said about 60 per cent of the unauthorised time taken was due to feigned illness or malingering. Five days out of every eight was down to people pulling duvet days or sickies.”
Fielding said the €1.1 billion did not include substantial indirect costs arising out of unauthorised staff absence. He said ‘unseen’ costs due to disruption, late deliveries, decline in employee morale, dissatisfied customers and deteriorating productivity, were often are greater than the direct or visible costs.
“It is like the iceberg,” said Fielding, “about one tenth is above the water and nine tenths is below. With small businesses, two people out of ten going absent really puts a lot of pressure on the rest of the staff. If you are missing deadlines and missing deliveries, your customers will vote with their feet.”
Dr. Gerard McMahon, consultant and lecturer in human resource management at Dublin Institute of Technology, said that larger organisations were even more likely to be affected by absenteeism than smaller companies.
“The public sector and large organisations, with big work groups, by default will see more than the private sector and small organisations and work groups,” he said.
Detection and deterrence
Helena Broderick, managing consultant with CollierBroderick Management Consultants, advised employers to put in place policies and procedures relating to absenteeism for employees to follow.
“There should be a proper notification procedure, and they should have to ring in themselves to their manager or an appointed person,” said Broderick. “Someone should not be texting, or having someone ring on their behalf with a story. That (approach) stops quite a lot of absence.”
Broderick said it was possible for employers to detect cases where employees are dishonestly claiming sick days.
“You should also look at the particular days that people are absent – Fridays, Mondays and Tuesdays after a bank holiday are bad signs,” she said. “If they are getting the vomiting bug on a regular basis, that is a trigger in itself. If you have doubts, then you should send them to the company doctor to determine whether there is a medical issue or if they are fit to work. Having that option in the contract of employment can help to reduce absences.”
Sometimes, unauthorised absences can flag up a wider problem within the organisation, according to Broderick.
“It is often about the culture,” she said. “It can be down to morale in the workplace. You find hardly any absences in companies that have a culture of high standards, high performance and everybody giving their all.”
Bad relationships with boss and co-workers can cause absenteeism, Broderick said.
“Absenteeism can be a sign of a poor relationship with other colleagues or personality clashes, or bullying or harassment taking place,” she said. “If the relationship with the boss is not good, people will not feel like coming into work to listen to negativity from someone they do not respect.”
Unmotivated and bored employees are more likely to miss work, Broderick said.
“It can be down to the job design,” she said. “We were dealing with a case recently, where it turned out that one woman was totally bored in her job. She was not motivated at all. We made a few changes, and added variety and challenge, and that sorted the problem.”
Solving the problem
Fielding said that the first step to dealing with an absenteeism problem was to keep accurate attendance records.
“Companies need to measure it, because if they do not measure it they cannot manage it,” he said. “In many cases managers have told us that they were shocked themselves when they sat down and went through their records and discovered how many sick days they had had. “
A ‘back to work’ interview should be held as soon as the employee returns to work, McMahon said.
“These meetings or interventions serve to clearly signal to employees that their absence was noticed and that they were missed,” he said. “This approach should demonstrate that absence is a high priority for the employer and that stated policies in this area are actually being put into practice on a consistent basis.”
Fielding said that the implementation of structured ‘back to work’ interviews had cut unauthorised absences by 55 per cent among ISME members.
“We found the back to work interview to be of major help,” he said. “The morning they arrive back in after being out for three days or whatever, there is a procedure. Everybody, whether it was an authorised absence or not, needs to go to their supervisor or owner-manager and sit down and go through a structured interview.”
McMahon said that the employee’s immediate supervisor or manager should be prepared to conduct the interview.
“Managers must be appropriately trained in how to conduct these interviews, to help ensure their effectiveness, together with a high level of fairness and consistency,” he said. “In this respect the recent discovery by Mercer HR Consultants – that almost half of Irish managers with responsibility for the management of absenteeism receive no training in the area – is disturbing.”
Broderick said it should be possible to flag up potential absenteeism issues during the recruitment process.
“Psychometric tests can be valuable, but a good structured interview is the most important,” she said. “These days people are very well versed at how to present themselves at interview, so the interviewer has to be really a few steps ahead. You have to ask them for specific evidence and examples to demonstrate their level of motivation, drive, energy and initiative.”
Fielding said that, for many smaller businesses, talking to a candidate’s past employers was the most effective method of discovering a potential malingerer.
“It is quite difficult to find a malingerer at the recruitment stage,” he said. “The reference is the best way of doing it – ringing the previous employers and hopefully, they will tell what the previous attendance record was like.
Fielding advised employers to put in place a disciplinary process for individuals who do not come to work.
“Not only do employees have rights and employers have responsibilities, it also goes the other way around,” he said. “The employer has the right to expect the employee to come in and do a day’s work and the employee has a responsibility to do that. If they cannot do that, for whatever reason, then there could be a case for disciplinary procedures, and ultimately, for dismissal.”
Jennifer Clarke, senior associate in the employment, pensions and employee benefits unit of LK Shields Solicitors, said a well- constructed absence management policy helped employers to deal with absenteeism fairly.
“Such policies set out processes and procedures for both employees and those within the company tasked with responsibility for recording and managing absence of employees,” Clarke said. “They will typically include the following five stages – initial discussion or counselling interview with the employee, verbal warning, written warning, final written warning or possible temporary suspension from employment with or without pay, and termination of employment.”
“It is important that the disciplinary procedure put in place by the employer is in writing and is communicated throughout the workplace so that both management and employees are aware of the employer’s policy and procedure in relation to absenteeism,” Clarke said. “The Employment Appeals Tribunal (“EAT”) will take into consideration whether such procedures were adhered to when assessing the fairness or otherwise of a dismissal.
Clarke said employers were expected to try and solve the absenteeism problem internally, before deciding to fire an employee.
“When dealing with any form of absence from work it is vital that an employer acts in a fair and reasonable manner,” she said. “The employer must manage and seek to improve the issue of absence within the workplace and try to determine how the absence might be best dealt with. This may include for example, facilitating an employee in a different capacity or position to that which they were initially employed to carry out. Such measures should be taken by an employer prior to taking the decision to dismiss an employee.