Article Index

Attendance Management

(Created January 1987 and last edited September 2013)

The management of workplace attendance is an important aspect of supervision in the workplace.

The cost of absenteeism is greater than the direct payment of wages and benefits paid durance the absence. Organizations must also consider the indirect costs of staffing, scheduling, re-training, lost productivity, diminished moral, turnover, and opportunity cost. The indirect costs often exceed the direct cost of absenteeism.

The annual cost of absenteeism is $2,500, which includes both direct and indirect costs based on 9.3 days absent (Dabboussy & Uppal, 2012) out of 250 working days (Dabboussy & Uppal, 2012) and an average payroll of $47,771 ("Industrial aggregate excluding unclassified businesses", 2013).

Effective supervisory efforts to manage attendance will affect a relatively small percentage of employees, but will result in substantial savings, increased productivity and morale.

Definition of Absenteeism

Absenteeism is the failure of employees to report for work when they are scheduled to work. Employees who are away from work on recognized holidays, vacations, or approved leaves of absence would not be included.

Causes of Absenteeism

The causes of absenteeism are many and include:

  • serious accidents and illness
  • low morale
  • poor working conditions
  • boredom on the job
  • lack of job satisfaction
  • inadequate leadership and poor supervision
  • personal problems (financial, marital, substance abuse, childcare eldercare etc.)
  • poor physical fitness
  • inadequate nutrition
  • transportation problems
  • the availability of income protection plans
  • stress
  • excessive workload
  • employee discontent

Cost of Absenteeism

Absenteeism may have repercussions, which include:

  • Decrease in Productivity
    • employees may be carrying an extra workload, or supporting new or replacement staff
    • employees may be required to train and orientate new or replacement workers
    • staff morale and employee service may suffer
  • Financial Costs
    • overtime or agency cost for replacement workers
    • cost of self-insured income protection plans
    • premium costs may rise for insured plans
  • Administrative Costs
    • staff time is required to secure replacement employees or to re-assign the remaining employees
    • staff time is required to maintain and control absenteeism

Do You Have An Absenteeism Problem?

Many organizations allocate 3% of their labour budget for absenteeism based on an average of eight (8) working days missed per employee annually. Since the rate of absenteeism varies by industry, division and department it is best to compare to the most relevant benchmark available.

Sources of Absenteeism Statistics

Labour Reports, Workers' Compensation Board Statistics and Statistics Canada provide paid sick leave statistics.

Trends in Absenteeism

Surveys indicate the following generalities in absenteeism:

  • The higher the rate of pay and the greater the length of service of the employee, the fewer the absences
  • As an organization grows, there is a tendency towards higher rates of absenteeism
  • Women are absent more frequently than men
  • Single employees are absent more frequently than married employees
  • Younger employees are absent more frequently than older employees
  • Older employees are absent for longer periods of time than younger employees
  • Unionized organizations have higher absenteeism rates than non-unionized organizations

Understanding Absenteeism

The definition, causes, affects on productivity, and costs of absenteeism are quite clear. The challenge is to develop methods that support attendance and control absenteeism, in such a way as not to create mistrust, costly administrative procedures and systems avoidance. Traditional methods of absenteeism control exclusively utilizing disciplinary procedures have proven to be ineffective. It is almost impossible to create a fair disciplinary procedure, because even well run disciplinary systems, which treat similar actions with consistent repercussions, are usually seen as unfair. This perception is common, because discipline alone neither identifies nor addresses the root causes of absenteeism. Every employee who takes time off in defiance of company regulations has reasons, which they believe justifies their actions. Unless a management attendance program identifies and addresses the causes of employee absenteeism, it will be ineffective and viewed as unfair. Traditional disciplinary programs alone can, at best, give the illusion of control. It is no secret that there are ways to beat even the best systems. The fear of discipline often only increases the desire to avoid management systems.

If absenteeism is to be controlled, the physical and emotional needs of employees must be addressed. In a 1985 study on "Rates of Absence among Nurses" it was found that 50% of absenteeism could be controlled through attending to employees’ physical and emotional needs.

Purpose of Attendance Management

The purpose of attendance management is to develop a willingness on the part of all employees to attend work regularly, and to assist them in motivating their co-workers to attend work regularly. This can be done through;

  1. addressing the physical and emotional needs of employees
  2. communicating the attendance goals of the organization so employees can understand and identify with them
  3. dealing with cases of excessive absenteeism effectively and fairly to produce deterrence.

Successful administration of an attendance management program requires managers and supervisors to be aware of, and to create work environments in which the following can be actualized;

  1. The greater the extent to which individuals identify with the goals of the organization and care what happens to it, the greater their motivation to be regular in attendance.
  2. The more that people find their jobs meaningful to them, the greater their motivation to be regular in attendance.
  3. As employees’ workloads increase due to the absence of a co-worker, peer pressure is exerted on the absent co-worker to attend work on a regular basis.
  4. The more people like working for the organization, the higher their motivation to attend regularly. Recognition of good employee attendance helps improve attendance.
  5. Employees will have a lower absence ratio if they feel free to discuss their on-the-job problems with their immediate supervisor.
  6. Employees with a low absence ratio feel confidence and have supportive relationships in their workplace. Low absence ratio employees are found to be more satisfied with their opportunity for promotion and upgrading.

Commitment to Attendance

This paper provides the information necessary to begin an effective attendance management program, which will yield long-term results. This paper is intended to be a guide rather than an instruction manual or policy. To make an attendance management program truly successful, it will require insight into the special dynamics present in your work place. It will require two-way communication, as both the needs of the employees and of management must be met if good attendance is to be achieved. Attendance is the responsibility of everyone, especially those who directly manage the human resources of your organization.

Attendance is not only an expectation; employers have the right to receive good attendance. Each and every employee has a contractual obligation to attend work regularly. All levels of management must believe in, be committed to, and communicate their expectations of good attendance. If a specific number of sick days are considered acceptable per employee, at best that will be the result. Employees will live up to the expectations that you set for them. Expectations must be clear to both management and employees in order for an attendance management program to get maximum results. Goals must be tangible. Attendance expectations must be clearly communicated and followed.

Income Protection

A common misconception about income protection plans is that they are a entitlements, like vacation benefit, and as such, should be fully utilized. The reality is that income protection plans are a form of insurance. The sole and only purpose of pay for sick leave is to assist in protecting employees against loss of income in the event of an unavoidable absence due to sickness or a non-work related injury. Use of income protection plans for any other purpose negates their intent and, therefore, is inappropriate. Communicating the true intent of income protection plans and our commitment to maintaining this original intent is an essential aspect of attendance management.

Attendance Management Program

An attendance management program can be split into three basic parts:

  1. Development of information/communication systems
  2. Information Testing
  3. Taking appropriate group action

1. Information Communication Systems

The first step of an effective attendance management program is to identify specific areas which are affecting attendance. Some general causes of absenteeism are listed at the beginning of this paper. The best way to find which specific areas are affecting absenteeism in a specific work environment is to develop open communication between managers, supervisors and employees. The reason for this is that it is not really the physical realities of the work place that influence employees willingness to work but rather their perceptions of these realities. For example, workload is only a problem if it is thought to be one. It is important that employees are encouraged to voice their concerns so their perceptions of the work place are clear and can be dealt with. This type of communication is especially important in unionized environments as employees often tend to communicate only with their union representatives. The result is that vital feed back necessary for effective management is lost. Cooperation with union representatives can be very helpful in attendance management and should be encouraged if possible.

Formal communications networks such as regularly scheduled department meetings are an excellent way not only to hear employee perceptions and concerns but also to communicate organizational goals. When employees are encouraged to make a difference they are less likely to withdraw their participation through absenteeism. Employees must not only be heard, they must be answered in such ways as to assure them their input is worthwhile. Staff development meetings are important in moulding company ideals with employee needs. They are also important in developing a sense of team spirit among coworkers. Full participation in such meetings is to be encouraged if they are to be effective.

Informal communications are also very effective in identifying and dealing with employee needs and perceptions. Informal communication involves all levels of managers and supervisors. Supervisors are especially important because of their hands-on approach and contact with employees. An employee's relationship with their supervisor can greatly influence their feelings about their work, their coworkers and thus their attendance at work.

Insight, intuition, creative thinking and listening are all powerful ways of finding areas which affect attendance. Ideas and information should be encouraged from all sources. The establishment of varied communication channels is useful in gathering information and to an extent, in confirming it. Effective communication in itself can effectively reduce absenteeism.

2. Information Testing

Once communication networks are established, information on perceived problems from employees will be bountiful. Before taking action on any issue, no matter what the source of information, it should be confirmed.

A simple and effective way to check whether a specific issue truly affects absenteeism is by finding correlations through using attendance records. If it is suggested, for instance, that absenteeism is increasing due to employee dissatisfaction with their workload, all one need do is match the attendance records during a period of "high" workload to a period of "normal" workload. If absenteeism is found to be significantly higher during increased workload periods, then it has been confirmed that actual workload "is related to" absenteeism levels. If no correlation exists it may be that employee perception of workload affects absenteeism. In this case the importance of the employee perception could be confirmed through staff development meetings. In any case two different problems have been distinguished which require different types of attention.

Attendance records also should be used to monitor attendance trends. Are long term or short term absences more common? What percentage of employees have excessive absences? The answers to these questions trigger attention to individual employees when their absences become excessive as will be discussed in the Guidelines for Absenteeism Control section.

Attendance record forms are designed to facilitate the determination of whether or not absenteeism patterns exist.

3. Taking Appropriate Group Action

The best way to handle any given situation is to handle it on its own merits and within the guidelines of the goals one is trying to achieve. This paper does not attempt to give all the answers to every possible situation but rather, offers suggestions and guidelines on which answers can be built.

In summary, to run an effective attendance management program it is important to:

  1. develop ways for each and every employee to feel free to contribute ideas and suggestions even though these may be outside the scope of their job responsibilities
  2. make each employee aware that they are a valued member of the "team", that they play an important role in your organization and that their attendance is critical
  3. hold regular meetings, keep your staff informed and involved
  4. know your employees; without prying show an interest in their personal lives
  5. be aware of problems that may effect employee attendance or performance
  6. familiarize yourself with community programs which you can recommend to an employee if he/she has a need for assistance (i.e. marital or financial counselling)
  7. awareness, commitment and involvement by all levels of staff

Positive motivation should be the main body of any attendance management program because it produces the best results. If an employee's experiences in the work place are pleasant, if he/she feels valued and appreciated, if supervision is fair but firm, that employee will be more motivated to attend work regularly.

Guidelines for Bona Fide Absence

1. Reporting Absences

Employees must personally notify, either by telephone, or in person, their immediate supervisor or designated person-in-charge before the start of their shift if they anticipate being absent from work. Employees should be encouraged to give as much notice as possible for anticipated absences. Employees should give a minimum (1) hour notice or the minimum notice if stated in their collective agreement.

2. Contact with Employees

Absent employees should be requested to keep contact with their employer. The employer should be informed of any changes in the employee's health status. Employees should be called if they are not keeping contact with the employer. The purpose is to show concern and desire for the employee to regain a healthy status and return to work. It is important that the employee does not feel imposed on. Refer to collective agreement provisions regarding sick leave reporting.

3. Reporting Back to Work

In order to avoid duplicate coverage of a scheduled shift, an employee who has been absent from work must give as much notice as possible of their intention to return to work. Before returning to work employees should be notified of the amount of notice which is necessary to re-schedule them back to work. If they must produce a physician's certificate it should be handed in upon their return to work. Most collective agreements have provisions for return to work notification.

Guidelines for Absenteeism Control

There are two types of absenteeism, each of which requires a different type of approach.

1. Innocent Absenteeism

Innocent absenteeism refers to employees who are absent for reasons beyond their control; like sickness and injury. Innocent absenteeism is not culpable which means that it is blameless. In a labour relations context this means that it cannot be remedied or treated by disciplinary measures.

2. Culpable Absenteeism

Culpable absenteeism refers to employees who are absent without authorization for reasons which are within their control. For instance, an employee who is on sick leave even though he/she is not sick, and it can be proven that the employee was not sick, is guilty of culpable absenteeism. To be culpable is to be blameworthy. In a labour relations context this means that progressive discipline can be applied.

For the large majority of employees, absenteeism is legitimate, innocent absenteeism which occurs infrequently. Procedures for disciplinary action apply only to culpable absenteeism. Many organizations take the view that through the process of individual absentee counselling and treatment, the majority of employees will overcome their problems and return to an acceptable level of regular attendance.

Identifying Excessive Absenteeism

Attendance records should be reviewed regularly to be sure that an employee's sick-leave days are excessive compared to other employees. If a supervisor suspects that an employee is excessively absent, this can be confirmed through reviewing the attendance records.

If all indications show that an employee is excessively absent, the next step is to gather as much information as possible in order to get a clearer picture of the situation. The employees' files should be reviewed and the employees immediate supervisor should document all available information on the particular employee's history.

Individual Communication

After all available information has been gathered, the administrator or supervisor should individually meet with each employee whom has been identified as having higher than average or questionable (or pattern) absences. This first meeting should be used to bring concerns regarding attendance to the employee's attention. It is also an opportunity to discuss with the employee, in some depth, the causes of his or her attendance problem and possible steps he or she can take to remedy or control the absences. Listen carefully to the employee's responses.

The tone of the meeting should not be adversarial, but a major purpose of the interview is to let the employee know that management treats attendance as a very important component of overall work performance. Keep your comments non-threatening and work-oriented. Stick to the facts (i.e. patters, profiles, rates etc.). The employee should be given a copy of there attendance report with absences highlighted for discussion.

This interview will give you the opportunity to explore in depth with the employee the reasons for his or her absence. Gather facts - do not make any assumptions. Provide support and counselling and offer guidance as the occasion demands to assist the employee to deal with the specific cause of the absence.

Often, after the initial meeting employees reduce their absenteeism. The meeting shows that you are concerned and that absenteeism is taken seriously. The employee's attendance should be closely monitored until it has been reduced to acceptable levels. Appropriate counselling should take place as is thought necessary. If a marked improvement has been shown, commend the employee. The meeting should be documented and a copy placed in the employee's file.

Proof of Illness

Sometimes it is helpful in counselling employees with excessive innocent or culpable absenteeism to inquire or verify the nature and reasons of their absence.

The extent to which an employer may inquire into the nature of and reasons for an employee's absence from the workplace is a delicate issue. The concepts of an employee's privacy and an employer's need for information affecting the workplace often come into conflict. Seldom is the conflict more difficult to resolve than where personal medical information is involved.

Unions will often strongly object to any efforts by management to inquire more deeply into the nature of an employee's illness. You will need to consider the restraints of any language in collective agreements in relation to this issue.

Generally speaking, however, the following "rules of thumb" can be derived from the existing jurisprudence:

There is a prevailing right to privacy on the part of an employee unless the employer can demonstrate that its legitimate business interests necessitate some intrusion into the employee's personal affairs.

  1. When such intrusion is justified it should be strictly limited to the degree of intrusion necessitated by the employer's interests.
  2. An employee has a duty to notify his employer of an intended absence, the cause of the absence and its expected duration. This information is required by the employer to meet its legitimate concerns to have at its disposal facts which will enable it to schedule work and organize its operation.
  3. An absent employee has an obligation to provide his employer with information regarding any change to his condition or circumstances relating to it which may affect the employer's needs as described in item #3 above. As such, the interests of the employer in having this information outweighs the individual employee's right to privacy.
  4. An employer rule requiring proof for every absence is unreasonable if an absenteeism problem does not exist.
  5. A mere assertion by the person claiming to be sick is not satisfactory proof.
  6. The obligation to prove sickness, where the employer requires proof, rests with the employee.
  7. An employer is entitled upon reasonable and probable grounds to refuse to accept a physician's certificate until it contains sufficient information to satisfy the employer's reservations. (i.e. seen by physician, some indication of return to work, etc.). Non-production of a required medical certificate could result in loss of pay until the certificate is produced.
  8. Where a medical certificate is rejected by an employer (as in #8 above) the employer must state the grounds for rejection and must point out to the employee what it requires to satisfy the onus of proof.
  9. An employer may require an employee to prove fitness for work where it has reasonable grounds to do so. In a health care setting the nature of the employer's business gives it a reasonably irresistible interest in this personal information for the purpose of assessing fitness.
  10. Where any unusual circumstances raise reasonable suspicion that an employee might have committed an abuse of an income protection program an employer may require an employee to explain such circumstances. For example, an employer may require responses as to whether the illness confined an employee to his/her bed or home; whether an employee engaged in any outside activity and the reasons for the activity.

In summary then, any intrusion into the employee's privacy must be shown to be reasonable, based on the individual circumstances and in relation to the operation of the employer's business. If income protection abuse is suspected the extent to which such intrusion is "reasonable" would be far greater than in the case where it is not. If you are not clear on whether an inquiry is legally justified it is advisable to consult your superior.

After the Initial Interview

If after the initial interview, enough time and counselling efforts, as appropriate, have passed and the employee's absenteeism has not improved, it may be necessary to take further action. Further action must be handled with extreme caution - a mistake in approach, timing or severity can be crippling from both an administration and labour relation's point of view.

Determining whether counselling or disciplinary action is appropriate, depends on whether the employee's absences are innocent or culpable. If the employee's absenteeism is made up of both innocent and culpable absences, then each type must be dealt with as a separate issue. In a labour relation's context innocent absenteeism and culpable absenteeism are mutually exclusive. One in no way affects the other.

Counselling Innocent Absenteeism

Innocent absenteeism is not blameworthy and therefore disciplinary action is not justified. It is obviously unfair to punish someone for conduct which is beyond his/her control. Absenteeism, no matter what the cause, imposes losses on the employer who is also not at fault. The damage suffered by the employer must be weighed against the employee's right to be sick. There is a point at which the employer's right to expect the employee to attend regularly and fulfill the employment contract will outweigh the employee's right to be sick. At such a point the termination of the employee may be justified, as will be discussed.

The procedure an employer may take for innocent absenteeism is as follows:

  1. Initial counselling(s)
  2. Written counselling(s)
  3. Reduction(s) of hours and/or job reclassification
  4. Discharge

Initial Counselling

Presuming you have communicated attendance expectations generally and have already identified an employee as a problem, you will have met with him or her as part of your attendance program and you should now continue to monitor the effect of these efforts on his or her attendance.

If the absences are intermittent, meet with the employee each time he/she returns to work. If absence is prolonged, keep in touch with the employee regularly and stay updated on the status of his/her condition. (Indicate your willingness to assist.)

You may require the employee to provide you with regular medical assessments. This will enable you to judge whether or not there is any likelihood of the employee providing regular attendance in future. Regular medical assessments will also give you an idea of what steps the employee is taking to seek medical or other assistance. Formal meetings in which verbal warnings are given should be given as appropriate and documented. If no improvement occurs written warning may be necessary.

Written Counselling

If the absences persist, you should meet with the employee formally and provide him/her with a letter of concern. If the absenteeism still continues to persist then the employee should be given a second letter of concern during another formal meeting. This letter would be stronger worded in that it would warn the employee that unless attendance improves, termination may be necessary.

Reduction(s) of Hours and or Job Reclassification

In between the first and second letters the employee may be given the option to reduce his/her hours to better fit his/her personal circumstances. This option must be voluntarily accepted by the employee and cannot be offered as an ultimatum, as a reduction in hours is a reduction in pay and therefore can be looked upon as discipline.

If the nature of the illness or injury is such that the employee is unable to fulfill the requirements of his/her job, but could for example benefit from modified work, counsel the employee to bid on jobs of such type if they become available. (N.B. It is inadvisable to "build" a job around an employee's incapacitates particularly in a unionized environment. The onus should be on the employee to apply for an existing position within his/her capabilities.)


Only when all the previously noted needs and conditions have been met and everything has been done to accommodate the employee can termination be considered. An Arbitrator would consider the following in ruling on an innocent absenteeism dismissal case.

  1. Has the employee done everything possible to regain their health and return to work?
  2. Has the employer provided every assistance possible? (i.e. counselling, support, time off.)
  3. Has the employer informed the employee of the unworkable situation resulting from their sickness?
  4. Has the employer attempted to accommodate the employee by offering a more suitable position (if available) or a reduction of hours?
  5. Has enough time elapsed to allow for every possible chance of recovery?
  6. Has the employer treated the employee prejudicially in any way?

As is evident, a great deal of time and effort must elapse before dismissal can take place.

These points would be used to substantiate or disprove the following two fold test.

  1. The absences must be shown to be clearly excessive.
  2. It must be proven that the employee will be unable to attend work on a regular basis in the future.

Corrective Action for Culpable Absenteeism

As already indicated, culpable absenteeism consists of absences where it can be demonstrated that the employee is not actually ill and is able to improve his/her attendance.

Presuming you have communicated attendance expectations generally, have identified the employee as a problem, have met with him/her as part of your attendance program, made your concerns on his specific absenteeism known and have offered counselling as appropriate, with no improvement despite your positive efforts, disciplinary procedures may be appropriate.

The procedures for corrective/progressive discipline for culpable absenteeism are generally the same as for other progressive discipline problems. The discipline should not be prejudicial in any way. The general procedure is as follows: [Utilizing counselling memorandum]

  1. Initial Warning(s)
  2. Written Warning(s)
  3. Suspension(s)
  4. Discharge

Verbal Warning

Formally meet with the employee and explain that income protection is to be used only when an employee is legitimately ill. Advise the employee that his/her attendance record must improve and be maintained at an improved level or further disciplinary action will result. Offer any counselling or guidance as is appropriate. Give further verbal warnings as required. Review the employee's income protection records at regular intervals. Where a marked improvement has been shown, commend the employee. Where there is no improvement a written warning should be issued.

Written Warning

Interview the employee again. Show him/her the statistics and point out that there has been no noticeable (or sufficient) improvement. Listen to the employee to see if there is a valid reason and offer any assistance you can. If no satisfactory explanation is given, advise the employee that he/she will be given a written warning. Be specific in your discussion with him/her and in the counselling memorandum as to the type of action to be taken and when it will be taken if the record does not improve. As soon as possible after this meeting provide the employee personally with the written warning and place a copy of his/her file. The written warning should identify any noticeable pattern.

If the amount and/or pattern continues, the next step in progressive discipline may be a second, stronger written warning. Your decision to provide a second written warning as an alternative to proceeding to a higher level of discipline (i.e. suspension) will depend on a number of factors. Such factors are, the severity of the problem, the credibility of the employee's explanations, the employee's general work performance and length of service.

Suspension (only after consultation with the appropriate superiors)

If the problem of culpable absenteeism persists, following the next interview period and immediately following an absence, the employee should be interviewed and advised that he/she is to be suspended. The length of the suspension will depend again on the severity of the problem, the credibility of the employee's explanation, the employee's general work performance and length of service. Subsequent suspensions are optional depending on the above condition.

Dismissal (only after consultation with the appropriate superiors)

Dismissals should only be considered when all of the above conditions and procedures have been met. The employee, upon displaying no satisfactory improvement, would be dismissed on the grounds of his/her unwillingness to correct his/her absence record.

Conclusion & Additional Resources


Attendance improvement programs can work! What the employees require is commitment and support from all levels of management, an effective attendance record-keeping system, consultation and open communication on the reasons for the attendance program.

Implementing and maintaining a work environment where open communication and team spirit can thrive will at first sometimes seem a mammoth and somewhat unrealistic task. If you need encouragement just consider some of the benefits; reduced absenteeism, open communication, team spirit, reduced grievances and greater employee satisfaction.

Only when the positive approach is unsuccessful does the employer need to use the remedial approach to deal with habitual abusers or with excessive absentee cases. In all cases the employer's actions must be fair and reasonable and consistently applied.

With a well communicated, implemented, and administered program, the majority of the employees should agree with the attendance management program and cooperation should follow.

Additional Resources:

References, Statistics & Reports



Statistics Canada Labour Force Survey

Statistics Canada Employment, Earnings and Hours

Attendance Management Theory

Attendance Management Policy