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Establishing a Firm Attendance Policy

(June 2004) posted on Mon May 31, 2004

Discover why you need an attendance policy and how to create and enforce one.


By Terry Combs

Employees arrive to work late almost every day, or they don't arrive at all. Presses are waiting for someone to turn them on and load them up. Sound familiar? Attendance is a concern or, at the very least, an annoyance for most managers. And it may be a bigger problem than you realize. If you consider absenteeism and tardiness a necessary evil, you probably don't realize what the evil costs your business.

Calculate the minutes, hours, and days of productivity you lose from late arrivals and no-shows. If production is supposed to start at 8:00, but your presses don't actually begin running until 8:15, you're losing more than a week and a half of production per press per year!

If your receptionist arrives a half hour late, does someone else have to answer the phone instead of preparing artwork, prepping screens, or handling purchasing requests? Lost productivity and a blow to morale occur when punctual employees have to cover for late employees and delay their own job tasks. But you can eliminate these costly problems to your business by implementing an attendance policy.

Turning a blind eye

In most screen-printing shops, employers often look the other way when it comes to dealing with a handful of their best employees whose only shortcoming is getting to work late. We justify the behavior by saying good employees are hard to find. But the reality is that we're not getting 40 hours of actual performance from the employees that we feel we're so lucky to have. We let them slide when they say, "I'll just stay late today to make up my time. It'll be no big deal." But it is a big deal when one person's job impacts another's.

What about the mediocre employees who walk the fine line between holding onto a job or not, simply because they've been late to work two or three times? In some shops, it might be acceptable for everyone--the good, the great, and the marginal--to be late to work. You must decide if this is an acceptable way to conduct business.

Who are the offenders?

Obviously, there are acceptable reasons to be late or even absent occasionally. Everybody gets the flu, has a flat tire, or gets stuck in a traffic jam once in a while. An employee once came into my office with an extreme excuse: "I'm late because I hit a horse with my car." It seemed unbelievable, but it was actually true. We had heard about it earlier that morning on the news!

Other reasons for being late or absent are simply unacceptable. Eliminate the crowd that perpetually uses the "It's Monday" excuse for being late. Put a stop to the constantly late employee in the screen-prep department who also happens to play in a band in the evenings. My daughter's teacher is a bartender at night and has weariness issues early in the morning. Don't think these problems are limited to the screen-printing industry!

You need to eliminate tardiness and absences by dealing with employees who take advantage of good-natured supervisors and forgiving company guidelines. Spell out exactly what managers expect of employees in a written absence/tardiness policy. The policy also should explain what reaction employees should expect from their supervisors. Ethically and legally, we must treat each employee equally. We cannot create one policy for our otherwise great employees and another for our marginal staffers. A clearly stated, well-defined policy sets your expectations squarely on the table for all to see and understand.

A firm, plainspoken policy will take you out of the mix when it comes to terminating employees. It puts the decision making into the hands of your employees. Your only task is to make certain that employees understand that they are in control of their own destinies when it comes to this policy.

Be aware that implementing a firm policy can be traumatic if it results in termination of an otherwise top-notch employee. Someone will test your new policy, and it might not be the employee you wouldn't mind losing. Or it could be the star of your production floor. Sometimes it's the employee you hate to lose that first falls prey to your new policy.

Once a policy is in place, you must be willing to follow through with the consequences, every time, without exception. Several years ago, I was forced to implement such a policy in my shop, and it resulted in the loss of some good and long-time employees. With two days left in the first year of my new policy, I warned five of my veterans that they had used up their allowable absences, and they simply had to show up to work two more days before beginning a new year with a clean slate. Unbelievably, two of the employees didn't make it to work the very next day. While it wasn't easy to terminate the employees, there was no turning back on my policy. And in the greater scheme of things, my policy lifted morale among the employees who had arrived to work on time throughout the year.

Be very, very careful. One lapse, one weak moment, or an offer of one more chance will absolutely destroy your credibility. It would have been easy for me to bend the rules with my two long-time employees who were a mere one day away from a new basket of chances. But they had squandered day after day throughout the year, missing work for ridiculous reasons, and they had left no "squirm room" in the end. Bending the rules for some employees but enforcing them with others could put you in a position of liability if employees are terminated as a result of the policy.

What is my policy?

I'm probably too liberal with my own policy, offering a more than reasonable amount of days of absence and tardiness. And I'm always willing to give people the benefit of the doubt. But when they reach the absenteeism limit, my employees know that second, third, and fourth chances are long gone. At that point, it's nothing personal. It's simply a handshake and a goodbye. I've outlined my attendance policy below.

An absence is any unscheduled missed workday (whether it's a paid sick day, charged against vacation time, or taken without pay). Missing any part of a day counts as half a day's absence. Scheduled vacation days and leaves of absence do not count toward absences. More than 15 unscheduled or unapproved absences will result in termination.

Tardiness to me means arriving to work up to an hour late. Tardiness of more than one hour rolls over to a 1/2 -day absence. (I still pay employees for their time on the job. I keep track of the information for calculation purposes.) More than 20 incidents of tardiness will result in termination.

Being absent and tardy does not automatically need to result in immediate termination. An early warning penalty might include a reduction in the percentage of pay increase for which an employee is eligible. If the standard raise is 5%, perhaps the perpetually late employee should only receive a 4% increase. Termination would come at a later stage.

Vacation time is not considered in the absence formula, and an allowance for legitimate leave of absence is taken into account as well. Employees may choose to use vacation time, once sick pay has been depleted, so they can still receive a paycheck at the end of the week. However, unscheduled absence, even when covered by vacation pay, still is considered in my absence/tardy policy. On the other hand, if an employee misses six weeks of work due to scheduled surgery or recovery from an accident, in most cases the missed time is considered a leave of absence and not subject to the policy.

Presenting the policy

When you establish a new policy, hold a company-wide meeting to explain it and review the underlying reasons for implementing change. Normally, when I introduce a new policy, I clean the slate for everyone--no matter how much an employee has abused the system in the past. Employees who already have a perfect attendance record may be unhappy about the clean-slate approach for everyone. Therefore, explain to them that everyone should have an equal opportunity to comply with a new system and policy.

When an offending employee has reached a threshold for action, give that employee written notice attached to a copy of the policy. For example, if a 1% reduction in potential annual rate increase is the penalty for 12 absences, give employees a warning when they've reached 11 absences. Also give a written warning before an employee reaches the drop-dead termination date. Ask them to sign a copy of this warning, and keep it on file.

How do I motivate employees?

Your new policy doesn't have to leave your employees down in the dumps. Offer a bonus by agreeing to purchase unused sick/personal days at the end of the year. Paying back even half the hourly wage to an employee who shows up to work every day gives them an incentive not to use all of the days offered. Plus, you increase productivity by encouraging employees to be on the job whenever possible.

All employees want to know what is expected of them. Most employees have no problem with clear and concise rules. A firm and fair policy, with the clear purpose of maintaining consistent productivity, will be adhered to by nearly all of your current and future employees. The result will be stable, reliable, and efficient operation.


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