Attendance Management

by Kate Russell

Dealing with persistent short-term absence

In order to manage sickness absences issues, it is important to fully understand the extent of the problem. The vast majority of sickness absence is short term, with no underlying medical condition linking it. But where there is an underlying medical reason linking the absences, or the absence is a long-term absence, you should use the capability procedure.

Effective strategies in managing short-term absence include:

  • Return-to-work interviews
  • Disciplinary procedures for unacceptable absence levels
  • Use of trigger mechanism, such as the Bradford Factor, to review attendance. It’s usual to have several triggers to deal with various scenarios
  • Involving trained line managers in absence management
  • Providing sickness absence information to line managers
  • Restricting sick pay
  • Involving occupational health professionals.

Disciplinary procedures for unacceptable absence may be used to make it clear to employees that unjustified absence will not be tolerated and that absence policies will be enforced.

Where an employee’s absence has exceeded your trigger point, you need to talk to him about it.

Tell him that his absence is causing problems. Investigate the matter thoroughly. First of all, try to find out whether the absences are due to genuine illnesses. Don’t make assumptions about the causes of the absence.

If there is a pattern of absence draw this to the employee’s attention and ask about it. Common patterns of absence are before or after a weekend, holiday or bank holiday, late shifts and during or after a major sporting event. If the employee shrugs and says it’s just coincidence, don’t harp on. You’ve made the point and the employee is now aware that you have noticed. Often that’s all that’s needed.

If there is evidence that the employee was not genuinely unwell – for example, the employee has said he can’t leave his bed of pain, but you have Facebook evidence of him having a lovely time on the beach at Yarmouth, you can put that to the employee and ask for an explanation. However, don’t assume that employees have to stay at home if they are ill. There are many illnesses where they can be unfit to work but able to go out, so exercise prudence when asking for an explanation.

Offer help and guidance as appropriate. For example, if someone keeps getting coughs and colds (some people genuinely do) say that there is quite a bit that the employee can do to protect his health. Provide a fact sheet to help them keep the bugs at bay.

This might include:

  • using tissues once and then disposing of them
  • washing hands thoroughly in hot water and soap
  • drying properly on disposable hand towels
  • keeping hands away from the face
  • wiping surfaces that are in constant contact with hands and tend to get buggy with bacteriocidal gel or wipes (e.g. door handles, light switches, keyboard, mice, phone etc)
  • using bacteriocidal hand gel
  • not sharing equipment like pens (they sometimes get chewed too)
  • wearing layers between neck and chest to protect the vital organs
  • taking extra vitamin C and zinc supplements if they start a cold
  • taking preventative measure to boost immunity, for example, drinking green tea with lemon and ginger
  • eating fresh fruit and veg
  • getting proper rest

Remind the employee he is under a duty to take all reasonable steps to look after his health so he can attend work.

Informal guidance

When the absence reaches unacceptable levels (for example a Bradford Factor trigger point is reached) speak to the employee informally in the first instance and set a time for an improvement in performance. Tell him clearly what improvement you require and what will happen if that improvement is not achieved. Make a record of the discussion.

An employee may accuse you of picking on him because he is sick. However, your concern is with his low attendance levels rather than his sickness.

You may want to consider taking medical advice to establish whether there is an underlying medical condition. If there is no underlying medical reason for the absences, continue to treat this through the formal route as a matter of poor attendance.

Using the formal process

If you take formal action, there must be a clear standard of attendance for the business and evidence that the employee is below that standard.

If there is an underlying medical reason for the absences, use the long-term absence procedure.

First stage formal warning

If, after an informal discussion, the employee’s attendance has not improved to the required standards within the specified time frame, the situation can be moved forward to a first stage formal warning. At this point, the absence problem should be dealt with according to the organisation’s formal procedure.

You can issue warnings related to poor attendance at work. The expected standard of attendance – in other words, the target – must be very clear. Your employee must be given time in which to demonstrate whether he can achieve the specified attendance standard.

Second stage formal warning

If, at the end of the warning period, the employee’s attendance has still not reached the required level, continue following your formal procedure. Ultimately this will lead to a final warning. After that, failure to improve to the required standard will lead to dismissal for some other substantial reason (SOSR). In this case it will be poor attendance. The employee may have genuine reasons for sickness absence, but there is no underlying medical condition.

Dismissal for SOSR

It is fair to terminate employment for poor attendance, even where the absentee has produced a medical certificate for his absences. The dismissal is for a failure to reach a reasonable level of attendance, not about whether the individual was genuinely ill or not.


T was employed as a racquet stringer. Her record for the first two years of her employment was satisfactory. Thereafter her attendance record became increasingly poor. For the last 18 months of her employment she was absent on average for about 25 per cent of her working time. Nearly all of these absences were covered by medical certificate. These referred to conditions such as ‘dizzy spells, anxiety and nerves, bronchitis, viral infections and flatulence’.

She received a number of warnings about her persistent absence. These warnings set her targets for improvement and clearly indicated the consequences of failure to improve.

The company consulted their own medical advisor. He could see no common link between the illnesses and said that T was not suffering from any long-term illness.

When T returned to work, she was summoned to a meeting and later that day she was dismissed. She claimed unfair dismissal. The tribunal found that she had been fairly dismissed because she had been clearly advised of the required attendance levels and the consequences of breach.