How to Talk to an Employee About Excessive Absenteeism

Why talking to your hourly employees about their absences is more effective than automatic disciplinary actions.

| Updated: Jun 08, 2022
Manager with warehouse worker talking about excessive absenteeism


Absenteeism, including excessive late arrivals and early departures, is a major problem across multiple industries. It adversely affects productivity and business outcomes, and it can completely cripple large front-line operations that depend on manual labor or shift work.

What is considered excessive absenteeism?

Some amount of absenteeism is to be expected when running a business. From scheduled absences such as vacation days, to unscheduled absences, such as sick days, there are times when workers have legitimate reasons to take time off of work.

Employee absences become excessive when they fall above a normal level of absenteeism or they become unreasonable. There is no established definition governing excessive absences so determining what qualifies as excessive involves an evaluation based on facts and circumstances.

To determine if the absences are unreasonable you’ll need to base your decision on the underlying reason for the absence, your company’s policies and procedures regarding time off, and the normal level of absences expected in your industry or at your worksite.

In determining whether an absence is excessive, you can also look at data. According to the Academy to Innovate HR (AIHR), “[a]s a rule of thumb, 1.5% of aggregated absence is illness-related,” meaning that typically, anything above that 1.5% threshold is because of non-illness related reasons, such as personal issues or work conflicts.

How to discuss the problem of absenteeism:

  1. Clearly communicate policies and procedures upfront

  2. Show employees you care. Find out why they are absent.

  3. Address the issue right away, in real-time.

  4. Constantly, fairly apply a points or progressive disciplinary system.

  5. Praise and reward good attendance, and acknowledge improvements.

Clearly communicate attendance policies and absence procedures

Don’t wait for chronic attendance issues to emerge to address requirements and make your expectations clear. Proactively improving your employee handbook policies can help you avoid and mitigate absenteeism.

The main policies that impact absenteeism include time and attendance, disability accommodation, leaves of absence, ethical conduct, and disciplinary actions.

Your employee handbook policies should:

  • Be easy to understand and communicate (in your workforce’s primary language).

  • Always be approved by a labor attorney licensed to practice in your state.

  • Be clear on the procedure and expectations for calling out.

  • Be emphasized upfront as part of new hire orientation.

Attendance and punctuality should also be listed as essential parts of each employee's job duties. (This is especially important for dealing with unreasonable disability accommodation requests).

Employees should also receive occasional reminders about the policies and procedures and where to find them. A practice of forcing employees to sign acknowledgments of policies they’ve never seen or can’t access is ineffective and actually creates additional liability for your organization.

Once the handbook policies are explained, all employees should acknowledge the policies in a way that clearly shows they are the person acknowledging them (e.g. wet or electronic signature, digital signature, SMS acknowledgment, etc.).


Show employees you care - Find out why they are absent

It’s all too easy to assume that every employee with attendance issues is lazy or apathetic towards their job. It’s also tempting to avoid conversations altogether by focusing solely on attendance versus the underlying cause. But let’s get something clear: the underlying cause matters.

According to the CDC, “Productivity losses related to personal and family health problems cost U.S. employers $1,685 per employee per year or $225.8 billion annually.”

Whether your employees are absent or tardy due to transportation issues, health issues, personal circumstances, or burnout, it’s critically important to understand their specific barriers to success. Focusing on the symptoms of chronic absenteeism versus addressing the root cause results in unnecessary turnover and wasted time on your part.

Listen and be empathetic, but take the opportunity to reinforce the expectations and requirements of the job. Reiterate how essential excellent attendance is to your operations, and ask what you can do to support them and help them show up on time, as scheduled. Before speaking with the employee, check with your HR representative. There are questions you should and should not ask employees in different circumstances, and it’s important to have HR looped in to avoid potential discrimination claims.


Address attendance issues right away, in real time

Don’t wait to address attendance issues.

By leveraging smart, user-friendly technology, you can nip absenteeism in the bud. A simple absence management tool handles the immediate response to the employee, along with instant documentation of the absence.

TeamSense sends you real-time, automated notifications altering you that an employee will be out - allowing you time to find coverage for the shift.

Employees can easily record their absence from their cell phones by texting “Off” to 59230. They receive a text back with a link to complete a simple absence survey. So no excuses!

TeamSense can even be configured to notify Human Resources of certain types of absences that may fall under FMLA, ADA, or other types of protected leave.

Apply a consistent accountability mechanism

A fair and consistent accountability mechanism is key to effectively enforcing your time and attendance policy.

The ruling in the court case of Williams v. AT&T Mobility Services LLC shows us the importance of demonstrating when an employee is unable to perform the essential job function of regular attendance and punctuality. In this case, a well-documented points system prevented AT&T from having to accommodate an employee’s chronic absences and tardiness.

The most reliable way to demonstrate patterns of policy violations is with an absence management system. TeamSense’s software allows your company to track and automatically retain documentation on unapproved absences for dispute resolution or audit purposes.

Praise and reward good attendance, and acknowledge improvements

Neuroscience has shown that employees respond better to rewards and recognition than threats and punishment. It’s important to acknowledge when employees have improved their attendance and give public praise for achievements like perfect attendance (i.e., no unexcused absences).

It would help if you also considered monetary rewards to promote excellent attendance. According to the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), “For a modest investment, employers can decrease absenteeism, increase productivity and reduce the time managers need to spend juggling schedules to ensure an acceptable service level.” Even a $25 gift card or free company swag can make a difference to employees.

Sheila Stafford is the CEO and co-founder of TeamSense. She has over 20 years of experience in manufacturing engineering and management. Sheila brings a unique perspective to the world of team communication. Drawing on her own experiences as well as those of her customers, she is dedicated to helping teams break down the barriers that impede effective communication.