Anyone who manages employees will need to, at some point, coach or discipline an employee for attendance. Most managers that I talk to are looking for a hard and fast rule as to when and how to discipline an employee for attendance. For example, “Any employee who arrives late to work more than three times in a month will be terminated.”

However, it's not as simple as that. Good attendance policies are purposely written to allow some flexibility should there be a legitimate reason for the employee’s tardiness or attendance. To be fair and to remain compliant, employee policies must be applied consistently to all employees. So, if the policy is too “black and white”, an employer may be forced to fire a great performer who has never had attendance problems, just as they did the chronically late employee with poor performance.

Interpreting policies then becomes a common dilemma for managers – at what point should I take action with an employee and how?

A typical way of writing an attendance policy is this: "Any employee with excessive unapproved absences or tardiness may receive disciplinary action up to and including termination." When written this way, the word "excessive" leaves room for interpretation.

So, what is meant by “excessive”?

Excessive is really any amount of time off that begins to have a significant impact on the team/department/business. When advising on this topic, I typically encourage managers to come up with a block of time in which to look back at absences and tardiness – a week or a month, for example. Then, I ask them to look at three things:

Frequency First, look at the missed time in terms of frequency. For example, one or two missed shifts in a month wouldn’t really be excessive. However, if this has happened in each of the last three months, a discussion with the employee is warranted. But, if the employee is calling in late two to three shifts a week with no real extenuating circumstances for multiple weeks, this is significant.

Reason(s) Once you have the frequency, consider the reasons for the missed time. Are they one-off situations such as a car that won’t start, a flat tire or an alarm not going off resulting in oversleeping? Or, are the absences all related in some way? If the absences are related, there may be room for flexibility. For example, if a spouse’s work schedule changes and the employee is now responsible for dropping kids off at school before work, this could result in being late to work. A simple schedule change could be all that is needed. If there is flexibility, push the employee’s shift 30 minutes later.

Pattern Finally, take a look to see if there is a pattern of absences. If the frequency has increased, or a pattern is becoming evident (late every Monday for example), it’s important to have a discussion with the employee to remind them of expectations. If the issue persists, then we need to move on to written warnings, etc.

What if the reasons for absences are health-related?

As a best practice, I typically do not advise asking for a doctor’s note unless the employee has missed three or more consecutive shifts. And even then, all that is needed is a note from the doctor stating that the employee is well enough to return to work with or without restrictions. An example of this would be if the employee had been out of the office with the flu. You would not want the employee to return to the office too soon and possibly get others sick. However, if an employee has had multiple absences for the same medical reason, a different conversation may need to happen with the employee as this can indicate a possible need for FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) leave or a reasonable accommodation under the ADAAA (Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act). An HR Professional (Like Me!) or Employment attorney should be consulted if an employee has had multiple absences for the same medically-related reason.

How does it differ if the employee is in a probationary period?

If an employee is in their probationary period, progressive discipline can be expedited. If an employee is still in a probationary period and already has had a couple of unexcused/unapproved absences, you can move to the written or final written warning stage. I prefer to see at least one attempt to correct any performance or attendance issues prior to terminating an employee within the probationary period. This will also help when responding to any future unemployment claim.

You will want to make sure you are documenting all employee conversations. Keeping good records of these conversations will not only protect the company in the event of a potential lawsuit, but it also documents all steps taken to help an employee succeed. For great information on how to document and best practices, check out this article posted on SHRM's website.

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