Management Articles


Treating Absenteeism
Plague Growing by Leaps and Bounds

By: Gregory P. Smith

Greg Smith's cutting-edge keynotes, consulting, and training programs have helped businesses reduce turnover, increase sales, hire superior people, and deliver better customer service. As President and founder of Chart Your Course International, He has implemented professional development programs for thousands of organizations globally. Greg has authored eight informative books including Here Today, Here Tomorrow: Transforming Your Workforce from High Turnover to High Retention and 401 Proven Ways to Retain Your Best Employees. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia. For more information, visit or call (770) 860-9464.

I was in Chicago this week and I took time to shop in Nordstrom’s. I overheard a conversation that attracted my attention. A supervisor approached one of her sales people and said, “Look, we’ve got to do something about people not showing up for work.” “OK, after three absences I am going to write you up . . .” The salesperson had this quizzical look on his face.

The approach the supervisor took is called the “carrot and stick” approach to management. She had the “stick,” but what about the “carrot?”

Turnover and absenteeism are major issues for most organizations. Absenteeism has increased by 14% since 1992. It costs employers $603 a day for each day an employee is out. In Canada alone, absenteeism costs that country an alarming $10 billion a year.

There are two types of absenteeism and both require different treatments. First, there is work-abuse issue absenteeism and secondly there is work-life issue absenteeism. In general, work-abuse issues include people who have poor work ethics and work-life issues include people who should be considered for some type of work hour flexibility.

Part of the reason for the increase of absenteeism is because our lives have become more complicated. In the workforce today, we have a growing population of working mothers, single parents, parents who are taking care of their parents and the list goes on.

You can reap many benefits by focusing on the needs of working parents. A survey by Flexible Resources of more than 500 women seeking flexible work arrangements found that 64 percent of them either quit or were planning to quit because of lack of work hour flexibility. What was alarming was that 59 percent of these women never asked their employers to modify their work schedules because they assumed they would be denied or lose stature. (Younger women
are more assertive in seeking flexible work arrangements than older women; 72 percent of women between the age of 25 and 35 were willing to request an FWA compared to only 30% of the respondents of women aged 36 to 45.)

Among those who requested a flexible work arrangement and were told “no,” were given the following reasons:
  • We can’t give it to you and not the others (52%)

  • You will not be available to others (48%)

  • We have never done it before (24%)

  • You won’t be as productive as when you worked full time (8%)

  • Your job is not conducive to flexible hours (5%)

  • There is too much work to do (5%)

  • It wouldn’t fit into a team atmosphere (5%)
Work-abuse absenteeism requires a totally different treatment strategy. There are some innovative approaches that have improved attendance. For example, one company reduced absenteeism by 74% by using approaches such as, “Attendance Lotto” and “Attendance Poker.” Nucor Steel has a pay-by-performance system that has kept absenteeism at record lows and productivity levels at exceptional highs.

A physician friend of mine used to say, “Treating a patient with a prescription without first understanding the illness, is called malpractice.” So treating absenteeism with a carrot and stick approach maybe the worst approach to take. Begin first by asking the question . . .”Why?” Find the root cause and then treat accordingly.

© Copyright 2001 Gregory P. Smith

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