Carrot vs. Stick: 10 Ways to Curb Absenteeism

Having worked most of my career in HR in the construction and manufacturing industries, I became accustomed to hearing supervisors say “He’s a great employee… when he’s here.” Supervisors were often reluctant to do anything about these employee’s attendance because they didn’t want to make waves with an otherwise good employee. On the other hand, their ‘not-so-favorite’ employees sometimes received disciplinary measures prematurely.

When absenteeism becomes a problem, nine times out of ten it’s for one of two reasons:

  1. They have a medical condition, or some other life challenge; or
  2. They are disengaged and/or bored

When you understand the reasons behind the absences, it becomes a lot easier to address. Here are 10 effective ways managers can address absenteeism depending on what’s causing it.

Life Challenge

Managers have a responsibility to ask employees why they are missing work too often. Here’s how to do it well:

  1. Tell them how much time they have missed compared to the average and ask them why this is so.
  2. If they don’t give you a satisfactory answer, ask them “Do you have a medical condition or some other life challenge that is preventing you from attending work regularly? (NOTE: don’t ask for the specifics of the medical condition if they don’t offer this information.)
  3. If they hint at a medical condition, ask them “Has it been diagnosed and are you receiving treatment for it?” Your primary concern should be the employee’s well-being, otherwise it will come across sounding like “You’re ‘alleged’ medical condition is really messing up my life.” (Note: Alcohol and drug addictions are considered a disability in Canada.)
  4. Employers have a right to expect employees to seek treatment for their conditions or disabilities, but they also have an obligation to help the employee manage them. Employers should also attempt to assist employees manage other life challenges (within reason) that are interfering with their attendance or work performance.

Bored / Disengaged

When someone misses a lot of work, most manager’s natural inclination is to assume that they are dodging work because they are lazy. That is rarely the case. Almost all people are motivated to work. That’s why people have hobbies. A hobby is simply self-directed work. The trick is motivating people to do the work that the employer needs done.

Here are a few things managers can do to better align their employees’ work interests with their work assignments.

  1. Get to know them well enough to discover their unique talents and interests. Nobody likes to feel like a failure. But if you have people doing work that they are not good at, that’s exactly what you are doing to them every day. Who wants to come to work to feel like a failure?
  2. Help them see their value to the team. Ask them “When do you most often feel that your job is important?” Think of ways to make it easy for them to maximize their contribution.
  3. Assign tasks that are more in line with their talents and interests. Someone who is not detail-oriented should not be in payroll. Likewise, someone with a personality like Eeyore should not be in recruiting, sales or reception.
  4. Ask them “How can I help you be more successful?” Gauge how realistic their expectations are and see what you can do to implement one or two of their suggestions.
  5. Help them see their career path, outline the knowledge and skills they must acquire to move on, and give them an approximate timeline of when they should expect to be ready for their next career move.
  6. Most jobs are not glamorous, but most managers miss simple opportunities to make them more rewarding. Managers can give employees additional responsibilities and decision-making opportunities on small items, such as allowing the receptionist to choose where to order the stationary from, or allowing the maintenance person to decide what cleaning supplies to use. When employees manage those decisions well, expand their role and add more decision-making opportunities.

Most companies completely bypass the carrot on their way to use the stick when managing attendance. Try the carrot first, and you’ll get better results.


4 Responses

  1. Great post Mike. If you work for a large company with plenty of HR rules is it appropriate to ask a team member if they have a medical or life challenge?

    1. Thanks for your comments Steve. Managers can and should ask their subordinates if they have a medical condition or life challenge IF their subordinate’s work performance is being negatively effected and IF the manager suspects there may be some other, non-obvious or outside issues at play. Having said that, if you work for a large company with lots of HR support, I would recommend the manager discuss his or her subordinate’s work performance with HR first and come up with a joint game plan.

  2. Good thoughts. My only question is you said mgrs say some of their best employes are good when they are there but miss lots of work. My experience is that people who miss a lot of work are rarely the best employes, not because they are board but because they feel the system is against.

    1. Yes John, as odd as it seems, this was a very common response I heard from construction and manufacturing supervisors.

      As I reviewed the cases and met with some of these people who felt the system was against them, it was almost always because at some time in their past, the system was unfriendly, unsympathetic, and at the very least unhelpful, if not antagonistic to them. It took a lot of gestures of good faith on our part to win some of them back (at least to a certain degree), and there were a number of success stories of good workers who were able to salvage their careers because the company and HR showed some humanity.

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