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Absenteeism: What It Is and How to Address It
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Heather K Adams image
Heather K Adams,
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Absenteeism is basically the workplace equivalent of ghosting: you think you've made a great hire, a perfect match for the position. Her resume is great, the interview goes well and she seems to fit right in at the office. Then, one Friday, she doesn't come in. Maybe she calls, maybe she doesn't. Either way, you're left unexpectedly short-handed. And over the course of the next few weeks, this happens again... and again. That's when you realize you've hired a ghost.

Exact definitions of absenteeism differ from company to company, and vary mostly in the clarification of what is and what isn't an unexcused absence. What it boils down to, however, is a pattern of unexcused absences from work. Whether this means the employee misses full days of work, comes in late or leaves early — it's a problem. And it's a problem that can affect your entire office. 

Excused occasional absences

People have lives. We all deal with childcare or family obligations. We go through periods of poor health. Or we have other things we simply need time off to deal with. That's why most companies offer vacation days, paid time off, or other options such as flexible working hours.

In return, employees agree not to take advantage of their allotted time off by abusing it. This isn't to say they need a doctor's excuse for every sick day they take (though some employers require just that). What it does mean is not taking excessive time off, leaving early without permission and certainly not pulling the infamous "no call, no show." Not only is it rude to the company, it's extremely unprofessional.

Chronic absenteeism

Chronic absenteeism is an established history of unexcused absences from work. These include coming in late or leaving early, not just failing to come in at all. We've all dealt with coworkers like this: people who call in sick so often it becomes a running joke, or who mysteriously disappear on an "errand" every Friday afternoon, just to get a start on their weekend.

As the boss, however, it falls to you to do more than just roll your eyes or complain. You have to address and somehow resolve the situation, as soon as possible. This means getting at the cause of all these absences. True, it could be a simple matter of someone being irresponsible and unprofessional. But it could also be a symptom of some other issue.

Common causes

On the "straight up, this is rude" side of absenteeism, it communicates a poor professional demeanor, a lack of respect for the company and a disinterest in keeping the job. This kind of employee might turn out to be pretty useless even when they do show up to work. The kind that spends a lot of time going for coffee, or only looking busy. This kind of ghost is pretty easy to recognize, and to know exactly what to do with.

But there's another side to consider, one that may not be as easy to spot. A person could be having troubles at home that they haven't mentioned, such as inconsistent childcare or a parent in poor health. They might suffer a chronic illness, like anxiety or depression, that can be both physically and mentally debilitating. Or they might just have a really unreliable vehicle that doesn't start every morning, and they'd rather call in sick than share that embarrassing fact. Whatever their situation, a lot of people are hesitant to open up about what's causing an issue for them. 

Ghosts are bad for business

A happy workplace is one in which every employee feels as if they contribute to the goals of the company. They feel valued as part of a productive team of equals. Having a ghost lurking somewhere in the office is a problem not just for you, but for your employees as well. And this goes beyond the added work load they might be dealing with. It's about morale.

"Well, if she gets to call in sick every Monday, why can't I?" That's the thought that will begin to sneak into your employees' minds. Or maybe they'll just build up more and more resentment about the extra work they've had to take on. Either way, everyone will start to feel the shift in the office's vibe, and productivity will eventually suffer.

How to deal

Before you take any action against your absentee employee, have a conversation with her first. And before you make accusations, ask questions, in a way that hopefully leads to a conversation and not an argument. A good opening to use is, "I notice you've been absent a lot lately. Is there anything going on you'd like to talk about?"

Go with your gut during this conversation. Does she admit she's been dealing with a difficult situation, or does she give you something more like a sob story, something that just feels like an excuse? Does she get defensive? Is she not even interested in explaining herself? You be the judge. From there, if you have to, follow your company's policies in terms of disciplinary actions. This is as much about setting an office precedent as it is chastising this particular employee. But if she explained her situation in a way that allowed you to understand her absences, be sure to let her know you're willing to work with her to resolve this ghosting issue.

Absenteeism is always a sign of a problem. Whether this is simply a problem employee, or the problem of an employee, the key to resolving the issue is to address it. Nobody wants a ghost "working" in their office. It lowers the morale of all your employees, and can begin to affect your bottom line.

Resolving the issue of an absentee employee may not need to involve disciplinary action, and it certainly doesn't have to always end in termination. Before you exorcise your ghost, talk to her. See if there's a way you can help bring her back to life. In return, you may just end up retaining a valuable employee, one whose loyalty is inspired by the fact that her boss — her company — took the time to care.

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Heather Adams is a freelance storyteller at Adams ArtCo. Find her on Instagram@art.life.story 

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