Attendance Management

by Kate Russell

Sickness notification and return-to-work meetings

Ensure reporting procedures are followed

It’s important to ensure that notification of absence is made at the earliest possible opportunity. There should be clear procedures for employees to follow when they are advising you of their absence.

What are your standards relating to the notification of sickness? Decide on the following and communicate them to your staff.

  • Who should report the sickness absence to the organisation?
  • To whom should the absence be reported?
  • By what time?

Employees are usually asked to make the call in person. In many cases, companies allow a third party to place a call on behalf of the sick employee. This isn’t a satisfactory arrangement, nor is it a good idea to allow messages to be taken by switchboards or left on an answerphone. Managing absence is about managing employees on a person-to-person basis.

You should encourage employees to stick to the reporting requirements. In most cases there will be no reason why the employee can’t comply. Research shows that the vast majority of time taken off as sickness absence is short term and for very minor illnesses, few of which preclude the use of a phone.

Where there are exceptional circumstances and the employee can’t call in person (for example, the employee’s in casualty waiting to have a broken leg set), it’s a good idea to find out what the situation is and whether you can do anything to help out.

For many a busy manager, this is a responsibility that arises at the start of the day when he’s trying to deal with lots of other pressing matters. You might consider training a nominated person to take such calls.

Return to work meetings

Return-to-work meetings are one of the most effective ways of reducing persistent short-term sickness. Return-to-work interviews can help identify short-term absence problems at an early stage. They also provide managers with an opportunity to start a dialogue with staff over underlying issues which might be causing the absence.

You should carry out a return-to-work meeting for all employees returning from sickness absence, however short or long the absence. It avoids accusations that you are picking on an individual.


Although this is one of the best tools you can use, it has to be done properly. Some managers feel very uncomfortable having this conversation, even though it’s part and parcel of their job. This discomfort manifests itself in several ways:

  • Poor eye contact (many become fascinated with the papers on their desk or the toe of their shoe)
  • Failing to probe
  • Failing to agree specific improvement targets.

Others only do it because ‘HR have told them to’.

If you fall into either of these categories, you are missing an opportunity!

Points to cover in the meeting

Use the meeting to complete or sign off any self-certification forms or to collect a doctor’s certificate. The completion of a self-certification form is an ideal trigger point for a return-to-work discussion. Make sure you hold the meeting in private and preferably before work starts on the day of return.

The meeting will go one of two ways, depending on the employee’s attendance record.

  1. Where an employee has generally good attendance, there are still points to be discussed.
  • Welcome the employee back.
  • Ask him how he is and confirm the reason for his absence.
  • Ask whether medical advice has been sought or taken, if this is appropriate.
  • Ask whether you need to take any actions to help him reintegrate into work.
  • Use the meeting to update the employee with job-related information – what happened while he was off sick – and let him know that he was missed.
  • Use the opportunity to praise the employee.
  • Update your documentation.

Sometimes, employees are so conscientious that they will come back to work too early and may still be ill. In these circumstances, send them home again until they are recovered.

  1. Where there is concern about an employee’s levels of attendance, the format will be rather different.
  • Welcome the employee back.
  • Ask him how he is.
  • Confirm the reason for the absence.
  • Show him his attendance record and discuss the facts. (Quite often, the employee won’t realise how much time he’s had off and this reminder is all it takes.)
  • Ask him if there is an underlying medical reason causing his absence.
  • Ask whether medical advice has been sought or taken, if this is appropriate.
  • Agree actions to reintegrate into work.
  • Ask him what you can do to help and support him to improve his attendance.
  • Use the meeting to update the employee with job-related information – what happened while he was off sick. Let him know that he was missed.
  • Agree action; get commitment, and be specific about the improvement you require.
  • Update your documentation. Set a timescale to review progress.
  • Follow up at the due date.

It may be the case that the employee becomes angry or defensive and accuses you of suggesting that he’s not been genuinely ill. Illness is not the issue here. The issue here is his attendance, about which you have concerns.

Questions to ask at a return-to-work meeting

Below are some questions that may reasonably be asked.

  • How have you been?
  • What were the symptoms?
  • When did you first notice them?
  • What medical advice did you seek?
  • What does your doctor say?
  • Is there an underlying medical condition causing your absences?
  • What level of work can you now undertake?
  • What are you doing to stop the recurrence of the problem?
  • How can I/we help you?
  • Are there any reasonable adjustments we need to consider making?
  • (Alternatively, review those already made and ask ‘What else can we do to help and support you?’)
  • What issues are there to be dealt with when you return to work?
  • What would make it easier for you to come to work?

Unsuitable questions

Don’t be sarcastic or flippant; this means not saying or asking the following:

  • You’ve been skiving again.
  • Good holiday?
  • Don’t worry – it’s not a big problem (it is!).
  • A few days’ sickness is OK (it is not!).
  • Just sort it out!