Absenteeism: Is 10% Causing 90%
of Your Problem?

by Stefani Yorges, Ph.D.

Do you remember viewing the bell-shaped curve in your college classes? The corresponding discussion probably addressed many things in life that follow this pattern - a small number in the lower "tail", a large number in the middle (average), and another small number in the upper "tail."

This pattern holds true for the issue of absenteeism in organizations. If you were to look closely at your records, you would probably find a small percentage of employees with perfect attendance, a large group with an occasional absence, and another small number (usually 10-15%) with a significant absenteeism problem that is costing your company a significant amount of money.

Unfortunately, most attendance control programs treat all of these employees the same, whether they miss only a few days now and then, or demonstrate a consistent absenteeism problem.

Recent research indicates that these employees are not all the same. In fact, they differ on a significant number of qualities. A study of four different organizations found that the group with the highest level of voluntary (i.e., incidental) absenteeism also had the following characteristics:

  • they were the most dissatisfied with the job they were doing
  • they were the least conscientious and most impulsive in character
  • they held the most negative views about attendance and work ethic
  • they had demonstrated attendance problems in high school
  • they had the most health problems
  • they admitted to higher levels of use of alcohol and drugs

Your attendance program can target these individuals, specifically, while not alienating those employees who have demonstrated their commitment to getting to work. The objective is to develop a culture of intolerance for non-medical absenteeism but within the context of being a supportive organization overall.

Attendance Policy

Attendance policies are often referred to an "absence control policies" because management is trying to control a problem. The tendency for these programs is to start with the assumption that all employees would rather stay home than be at work. Such a mentality can be self-defeating for the overwhelming majority of workers whose primary goal is to derive a sense of pride and achievement from their work. Management should be encouraged to treat the majority of employees as responsible adults. These employees understand reasonable rules and do not want to be threatened into compliance.

The small number of employees who have an absenteeism problem require close supervision and possibly even punitive measure for excessive absenteeism. These few employees who are irresponsible should be handled individually and firmly.

The following elements should be addressed in an absence management policy, which will generally include procedures for both employees and those responsible for recording absence:

  1. The organization's approach to absence
    • principles - fairness and consistency
    • position - low tolerance of unauthorized absence, high levels of support for genuinely ill employees
    • objective - to create and promote a positive and healthy workforce, to specify an absence target rate
    • organizational services - Employee Assistance Program (EAPs), counseling services, rehabilitation and re-integration programs
    • the definition and measurement of absence

  2. Notification procedures for employees who are out sick
    • who to notify
    • when to notify
    • when to obtain medical certification (e.g., sick absence of three working days or more)

  3. The role of the supervisor with responsibility for the recording of absence
    • absence recording requirements, including documentation
    • conducting return-to-work interviews
    • level of discretion available to the supervisor to deal with absence

  4. Disciplinary processes and procedures

Strict enforcement of a formal and standardized attendance policy will immediately reduce the amount of unnecessary absence abuse. Establish your standard for what constitutes excessive absenteeism (e.g., more than four voluntary absences in twelve months, more than two voluntary absences in a five week period, or pattern-related absences throughout the year).

Disciplinary procedures should be established where absence is considered to be above an acceptable level. Initially, an informal counseling session might suffice. If the problem continues, a formal review and verbal warning can be issued, followed by a second formal review and written warning if necessary. Where these steps do not resolve the problem, a temporary suspension from work or termination of employment may be required.

Return-to-Work Interviews

Supervisors should be trained in how to conduct effective and fair return-to-work interviews. Completion of forms detailing the content of the interview should be encouraged and made a formal requirement. These forms should then be made available to senior management for review. This will assist in ensuring that correct procedures have been applied and that the aims of consistent, productive, and equitable treatment have been attained.

Return-to-work interviews are an extremely useful tool in dealing with employee absence. Recent national surveys indicate that these interviews are regarded as the most effective tool for managing short-term absence. 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 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.

Restricting Sick Pay

Where there is a system in place with sick pay benefits, employees are guaranteed some payment in the event of illness. This is designed to provide employees with some protection in times when they cannot work due to illness. The existence of sick pay benefits, however, is often considered to be a contributory factor to short-term absence, or to even encourage absence.

Indeed, companies offering sick pay benefits typically have absence rates that are higher than those who do not offer such programs. This can be due to the way some programs are managed, with employees feeling "entitled" to take a certain number of days of sick pay per year.

The notion of restricting sick pay is generally part of absence control procedures and can consist of either (1) restricting the number of paid days in a given year, or (2) suspension from benefit where abuse of the program has been proven. Some organizations will no longer pay employees for the first three days of any sick leave period. This still provides protection for employees in the event of a serious illness, but eliminates the incentive in place for short-term absences.

Paid-Time-Off Policies

For time off that is not related to serious illness or injury, paid-time-off (PTO) programs have been ranked one of the most effective methods for absence control. Unlike traditional time-off programs which are separated into sick days and vacation days, PTOs lump all days off into a single flextime category that employees can use for anything. Since PTOs allow employees to use time off for any reason, they can schedule absences in advance and use only the amount of time needed.

Another element that can be included in these programs to minimize unscheduled absences requires that scheduled time off is deducted at a 75% rate (i.e., only 6 hours for every 8 taken), while unscheduled time is deducted at 100% (i.e., 8 hours for every 8 taken). Some companies further boost the effectiveness of PTOs with reward programs. Employees are offered cash or gift certificates at the end of the year for up to 3 unused days off.

Another related option involves "Comp Time" policies. If an employee has a personal appointment (or some situation that can't be handled after work), the employee arranges to take off a small portion of the day (typically 1-4 hours only). The time is made up within a certain period - usually the same week. This system gives employees the flexibility they need to balance home and work, while still giving 100% to their jobs. It also helps the supervisor because the person is not out for the entire day and likely does not need a replacement.


Given the substantial number of studies documenting that certain personality traits can predict work performance, your company can also begin to target characteristics such as conscientiousness and impulsivity in the hiring process. Decades of research have proven these personality tests to be reliable and valid, and many have been developed specifically for use in clerical, industrial, service, and manufacturing industries. These measures have been found to reduce absenteeism, lateness, on-the-job substance abuse, turnover, and theft by identifying high-risk individuals before they are hired.

The use of personal history data (called "biodata") in selecting employees is increasingly popular as well. Research has shown that behavior tends to be consistent; and that past behavior is predictive of future performance. Simply adding one or two items to your application or interview procedures that address prior absenteeism or other problem behaviors can make a big difference in the quality of your hires. Early identification of individuals with an unreliable history can eliminate them from your applicant pool and result in a more dependable workforce.


Controlling excessive absenteeism is an important step in reducing business costs. Employers are affected by direct costs such as sick pay, overtime and staff replacement costs, plus the indirect costs associated with the effects of absence on production and quality.

However, attendance problems are not just about cost. When excessive absence is not addressed or addressed in an inconsistent manner, lower morale can result. Other employees will feel they are being treated unfairly when they perceive irresponsible employees are "getting away with it."

For these reasons, companies can no longer afford to permit unnecessary absence that they may have tolerated in the past. According to the 2006 CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey, while absenteeism rates have stayed fairly stable over the past few years, the average cost per employee has dramatically risen. Therefore, it is in the best interest of companies to focus on eliminating, or at least reducing, unnecessary levels of absence.

Dr. Yorges received her Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology in 1996 from Purdue University. She has been a professor in the I/O graduate program at West Chester University in Pennsylvania for the past 11 years. Her research, teaching, and consulting interests are in organizational behavior - particularly in the areas of absenteeism, turnover, and withdrawal behaviors. Dr. Yorges can be reached by e-mail: syorges@wcupa.edu .

Many more articles in The HR Refresher in The CEO Refresher Achives


Copyright 2007 by Stefani Yorges. All rights reserved.

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