Fixer: Why doesn’t our absence policy work?

Sam Sales helps a reader whose line managers are finding it difficult to decide if team members are genuinely ill

We have an absence policy stating that a disciplinary investigation is triggered by four instances of short-term sickness absence in quick succession. But our line managers are finding it hard to decide if team members are genuinely ill. Could  this policy be adapted or implemented better?

In my experience, this approach to managing absence is archaic. I can understand why your mangers are finding the system difficult, and I suspect they consider it a relatively punitive way of dealing with absence.

I believe businesses should treat their employees as adults, and asking managers to adjudicate on their condition, with the threat of a disciplinary hanging over employees if they are sick too often, is a very parental way of looking at the issue. You want absence management to be supportive, and disciplinary action should be a last resort. 

Once you start waving around a sickness absence policy, the trust has been lost and conversations become less meaningful. It also does not encourage employees to be honest about the reasons for their absence or ask for help, which is, after all, what we want them to do. To develop trust, you must start by believing all absences are genuine – which this approach does not.

The Bradford Factor and other measures will give you a statistical way to look at absence and identify trends but, as you’ve found, they are only as good as the data you are given. A self-reporting system, where employees take control of their absences, will be more than adequate for most wellbeing issues, and will be a key signal that you trust and respect your staff.

Freed from the need to record absences like schoolteachers, your managers can concentrate on the undoubtedly small number of cases where absence is unexplained or a suspicious pattern emerges – hopefully backed by better training and HR business partner support.