Absenteeism can be a big problem for any employer, including law firms. While it’s tempting to think first about the employment law issues and formal procedures, to manage absenteeism effectively you need to take a more rounded view. This checklist will help, writes Georgie Whitmore, head of people at Shieldpay. (Updated 22 February 2023)
(Note: Working from home and hybrid working have made the issue of absenteeism far less clearcut. For tips on how to make such arrangements work for everyone, see Managing employees who are working from home - checklist.)
- Set a policy requiring employees to call in and notify the firm of any absences. Ask employees to speak to their manager, if possible, rather than leaving a message.
- Meet with employees on their return to work: make sure they are fully recovered, bring them up to date and, if necessary, clarify the reason for the absence.
- Ask them to complete a self-certification form if the period of absence is less than seven days.
- If the period of absence is longer than seven days, ensure the employee has a ‘Fit Note’ from their doctor.
- Check whether you can implement any changes to working practices or the working environment to reduce further illness, for example, ergonomic seating or longer breaks.
- Consider whether long or pressurised working hours are creating excessive stress; look at the firm's overall culture and partners' attitudes.
- Include illegitimate absenteeism as a disciplinary offence.
- Don’t make assumptions about the reason for absenteeism. Investigate fully.
- Treat employees with genuine reasons sympathetically; respect the legal rights of employees suffering from long-term illness or disability.
- Monitor individual absenteeism.
- Monitor overall absence levels, for example, as a percentage of total working time or by using a scoring mechanism such as the Bradford Factor.
- Analyse any significant correlations: for example, high levels of absenteeism on Mondays or among a particular group of employees.
- If informal measures do not lead to an improvement in attendance, implement a documented formal procedure when absences are becoming excessive.
- Be seen to proactively manage absenteeism.
- Keep records of employees’ absences and of all discussions held about absence and attendance, whether formal or informal.
- Motivate employees so that they want to work; aim to provide fulfilling projects and development opportunities.
- Create a climate of open communication and trust so that employees approach managers with problems rather than just calling in sick.
- Check that you are providing healthy working conditions: ensure that you have good lighting, ventilation and safe working practices.
- Consider providing an employee health scheme or offering training in healthy lifestyles and stress management.
- Draw up family-friendly policies to allow employees to legitimately take personal time when they need it.
- Be open to options for flexible working where possible.
- Ensure that managers lead by example – not just complying with absence procedures, but also following and encouraging healthy working practices.
- Be consistent. Avoid giving preferential treatment to particular people, such as longstanding employees.
"Absenteeism can often be an indication of deeper problems – always try to dig deeper."
Alex Holt, director of business development, The Cashroom
"With mental health issues on the rise, empathise with staff and get to the true cause of absence. When a valued team member is on sick leave for prolonged periods, there is usually a genuine reason. Triggering 'policy' is not always the best option."
Kirsty Pappin, founder, Aries Legal Practice Management
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