10 common causes of absence and how to respond

  • I’m sick
  • My child is sick
  • My car won’t start
  • My car’s been vandalised
  • I have to wait in for the plumber
  • I’ve got a doctor’s appointment
  • My cat died
  • I’ve got a family emergency
  • I’ve got food poisoning
  • I’ve got a gas leak

As an MD of a small business, I came to dread that time of the morning between 9 and 9.15am.  I’d sit at my desk with one ear listening for the phone to ring with the excuses of why my staff were going to be late or absent.  It was a depressing start to the day and probably a good thing that they couldn’t see my eyes rolling at the variety of excuses I heard.

So how should you deal with claims of sickness and all the other excuses you hear when you’re managing people?  You know some of them are genuine, and you can be fairly sure that some are fake and you’re never going to be completely certain where the boundary is between the two.  However much you’d like to, there is no point in getting angry with someone over the phone when they are calling in a completely stuffed up with cold.  You have to take a more measured approach to minimising sickness absence.

Sickness policy

The best advice about where to start is to get yourself a sickness policy.  It can be a stand-alone document or be incorporated into your employee handbook, but it needs to exist and all your staff must read it, and sign off that they have read it.  And remember – if you have to change it you must make sure everyone knows and has read the changes.

A policy should include:

  • A statement of principles – e.g. expecting staff to be in work and punctual
  • Procedures for notifying managers of absence
  • A definition of short and long-term illness and ways they will be monitored
  • What will happen if they are found to be taking time off without good reason
  • How to deal with other reasons for absence e.g. children’s sickness or other problems at home

The policy is important for the case when someone is taking time off without good cause as it establishes the rules and makes it clear when they may have been broken.

Stick to the rules

Once you have established the rules gently but firmly enforce them.  Make sure people call in sick, make sure you conduct return to work interviews if that’s what you say you’ll do.  Be realistic.  If you can’t make something happen it is better not to be in the policy.  Any deviation from the rules on your part will devalue the rules in your employees’ eyes.

Keep records

Keep good records of absence – and make sure your staff know you do.  Report on trends, e.g. if you suspect you have a problem with absence, check for patterns of behaviour like regular Mondays off sick, or problems in school holidays.

You never know it may throw up some interesting information.  I found one story where an employee claimed their mother had died – twice in a two-year period!