Few employment-related problems are as difficult to manage as absenteeism. In some cases disciplinary action can be taken and in other cases a different approach may be indicated.
Where the absence is without the employer's permission, or a medical certificate is forged, or an employer has enough proof that an employee who claims to be ill has not really been too ill to work, disciplinary action would be appropriate. Where there is sufficient medical proof that the employee has a genuine illness or injury resulting in frequent absences, the problem should be dealt with as one involving ill health in terms of the provisions of clauses 10 and 11 of the Code of Good Practice: Dismissal and, where appropriate, the Code of Good Practice on Managing Disability in the Workplace.
What does an employer do when the employee does not have a single, genuine illness or injury, but his/her absences are frequent but somehow always supported by a valid medical certificate, or it falls within the provisions of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act? These absences, because no leave of absence has been granted, can be very disruptive and difficult to manage. We suggest that employers develop a strategy to prevent this.
In order for such a strategy to be effective, an employer should –
Determine the number of occurrences (absences) the employer is prepared to accommodate within a given period and bring this under the attention of employees. This should be reasonable, e.g. 3 occasions in any 8-week period;
Commence with a formal counselling process once the set standard has been exceeded. The employer’s performance counselling procedure can be used for this purpose. Note that the employer does not have to wait until the employee has exhausted his/her sick leave before commencing with counselling;
Develop an interview form and then conduct an interview with any employee who returns from any sick leave to determine, e.g., how long the employee has been absent; whether a certificate is required; what the prospects are, i.e. whether the employee expects any further absences in the near future; and how many days' sick leave the employee still has available during the current sick leave cycle. This alerts the employee that note has been taken of his/her absence;
Develop requirements with which medical certificates have to comply before the employer accepts them (see Labourwise Newsletter May 2003: Medical certificates: dispelling the myths.);
Use its existing health services, e.g. clinic, to ask for a second opinion if a certificate appears not to be authentic. Alternatively, it is advisable that a medical practitioner in private practice be approached to render these services to the employer;
Provide incentives to promote good attendance, e.g. additional annual leave to persons with a good attendance record, or factoring attendance into the employee’s performance review for bonus purposes;
Introduce specific deterrents, e.g. providing information on a regular basis to all staff about the absenteeism trend in the organisation and the impact this has on the organisation as a whole;
Introduce an employee assistance plan to assist employees whose illnesses are genuine and might require further medical examinations or treatment;
Maintain a healthy work environment and work methods;
Apply good human resource management and labour relations practices in general.
If an employee is being counselled for poor attendance, it is important that the employer determines the number of counselling sessions that the employer is prepared to present to improve the employee’s attendance. As a rule of thumb three formal sessions over a reasonable period of time should suffice. However, the sessions should support a problem-solving approach and be aimed at identifying and addressing the employee’s problem, not merely be a one-way communication in which the employer berates the employee for his/her poor attendance. It is also important that a clear ultimatum be set at the last counselling session that continued absenteeism would lead to an incapacity hearing that might result in dismissal. The provisions of clause 9 of the Code of Good Practice: Dismissal apply in this instance.
Written for Labourwise by Barney Jordaan of Jordaan • Stander (Pty) Ltd.