HR Administration

Is your employee attendance policy and procedure fit for purpose?

By Dan Whitehead

Sep. 9, 2021

As workplaces reopen, the traditional understanding of what it means to be “at work” have has changed—perhaps forever. While we wait to see how this new employment landscape evolves, it’s a good time to take a fresh look at your employee attendance policy and procedures to make sure they’re meeting your needs.

Plugging any gaps in your policies and refreshing your procedures can only help to future-proof your business from whatever comes next. Employees may now have different expectations for their working life, but time and attendance problems are still a core issue for any business.

These are the elements that should be included in your employee attendance policy and procedures, and why, in order of severity.

Lateness is your early warning system

A one-off instance of lateness may be understandable, but if it becomes a recurring problem, it can be your early warning for potentially serious issues with a worker, a team, or a department.

Tardiness is the most common time and attendance issue facing businesses. Studies have shown that, on average, a quarter of US employees report being late for work at least once a month. Younger employees are more prone to this—38% of those ages 34 or younger are late once a month or more, but that drops to only 14% for workers ages 44 or older. Almost half of US employers—43%—fire employees for lateness each year.

Lateness costs US businesses billions every year through lost productivity. The key is not to focus on individual instances of lateness but to instead identify problematic patterns and prevent them from becoming systemic. For example, this may be a specific employee who is persistently late or a particular department or location with repeated poor timekeeping. Using time and attendance software makes these patterns easy to spot and gives you data-backed evidence.

Your employee attendance policy and procedures should insist that employees who are running late inform their manager within a clear time frame. Your policy should also make clear what frequency of lateness will incur penalties and what the disciplinary response will be. Given that lateness is so endemic, some companies build leeway into their schedules, allowing a 10-minute grace period before an employee is officially marked as late.

As long as managerial leniency doesn’t undermine your attendance policy, there are benefits to reaching out to persistently late employees to see if the company can help resolve the issues causing their problem. Implementing flexible working, such as shift swaps, can help with employee retention and engagement and reduce lateness.


Absences require a nuanced approach

The cost of staff absence is much more visible than that caused by lateness. In 2019, US companies cumulatively lost over 1.5 billion working days due to absent employees. At a strategic level, dealing with individual absences requires a nuanced approach. While data is great for identifying problems, the statistics should always be backed up with direct staff communication.

The official 2020 US government statistics on employee absence show that the average absence rate nationwide was 3%. Excessive absence above the national average suggests a problem with company culture. Either employees are unhappy in their work or management is being slack with regard to attendance. The more detailed your data, the more precisely you’ll be able to identify the problem areas. If your company’s absence rate is noticeably lower than the average, say around 1.5%, that may not be cause for celebration. People will get sick, and the hidden risk of low absence rates suggests these sick people feel unable or afraid to take time off and are bringing their illness to work.

If you’re not using time and attendance software to keep track of your absence rate, it can easily be worked out by dividing the number of days or hours lost to absence by the number that should have been attended, then multiplying the result by 100. For example, an employee who is expected to work 260 days per year, but is absent for five of those days, would have an absence rate of 1.9%. The same formula applies to individual workers, departments, or the whole business. You can now compare your absence rate to the national average to see how your business is faring.

Absence rates should always be considered in the context of absence frequency. For example, one worker may be off for 10 consecutive days. Another worker may call in sick on 10 Fridays during the year. Both would have the same absence rate, but the frequencies tell different stories—the first worker may have been seriously ill, while the second likes to have a long weekend. Your procedure should empower managers to take that into account when deciding what action to take.

That’s why it’s important to clarify which reasons you consider legitimate in your employee attendance policy. The policy should also specifically state how much warning employees are expected to give if they can’t come into work. For example, they should get in touch before 9:30 a.m. or at least an hour before their shift begins. Of course, day-to-day implementation of absence policy will always be down to manager discretion, but setting clear guidelines will prevent confusion on both sides.


“No call, no shows” are the worst-case scenario

A “no call, no show” is when an employee simply doesn’t turn up for work and gives their manager no warning. These are the most serious of all attendance infractions. The lack of notice exacerbates all the costs and inconveniences of a normal absence, which means it needs to be treated especially carefully and thoroughly.

This is a particularly perilous time for last-minute absences in shift work. As the economy rebounds from the pandemic, workers are quitting their jobs at the highest rate in two decades. There are a record 10.1 million job openings in the US right now, with hospitality and other shift-based roles especially affected. Employees with low engagement in their job have never been more empowered to simply walk away—sometimes without even going through a formal resignation procedure.

If an employee fails to show for work on consecutive days with no contact, that is considered “job abandonment” and is widely considered reason enough to fire them. Be sure to make it clear in your policy exactly how many days absent will count as abandonment. Three is generally considered standard, but check state case law for any local precedents that have been set.

Therefore, your employee attendance policy needs to be explicit about repercussions for a no call, no show absence. Some companies make it cause for immediate termination. Others use a three-strikes policy. Be careful of assuming the worst, however. For a first-time offense, communicate with the employee. It may just be a hangover, or it could be a family tragedy. Be firm, but check the facts before dropping the hammer.


Employee attendance policies and procedures protect your business

Once you have closed the gaps in your employee attendance policies and procedures, apply them consistently. Penalizing workers for lateness while always letting a manager leave early sets a bad precedent that can backfire. The more airtight your policies and procedures, and the more accurate your attendance data, the less risk of legal exposure for your business.

Having an explicit procedure to follow is particularly important when job terminations are involved, as this is an area where unfair dismissal suits can become public and messy. For example, in 2020, there was a high-profile case of a Boeing employee who was given a “last chance agreement” following repeated attendance infractions. The employee then took paid time off and didn’t return to work afterward. He was fired but sued, saying he had been fired for taking the leave, not his attendance record.

Evidence of repeated clear infractions of an established policy, backed up by incontrovertible evidence of repeated lateness or non-attendance, was what convinced the 3rd Circuit Court to dismiss the case against Boeing—and the same combination of policy, procedure, and data is your best defense against this kind of suit as well. can not only gather that attendance data automatically, but it can also alert managers to staff that repeatedly fail to follow policy so problems can be dealt with earlier. Tackle it too late and poor attendance may be the least of your worries.


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