Attendance Management

by Kate Russell

Absence management procedure

Managing absence is unpopular with line managers and it certainly requires some effort. The good news is that consistent effort will bring about and maintain improvements. Consistency is the key to success. Good absence management takes a collaborative approach involving HR, line managers and medical advisors to make it work most effectively.

Human Resource support will largely be based around providing support, guidance and advice to line managers. This function may also be used to coordinate the organisation’s approach and may carry out the monitoring of absence on a central basis.

Line managers are generally the first point of contact when employees call in. They have to manage the absence by keeping records, rescheduling work and conducting return-to-work interviews.

Medical advisors are used to advise on the state of the employee’s health and the likely prognosis as well as giving guidance as to what the employer can do to make adjustments to support the employee.

Data processing

Remember that collecting and processing personal data about health falls into the special category of data. Most employers are likely to rely on processing being necessary for the purposes of carrying out the obligations and exercising the specific rights of the controller or of the data subject in the field of employment law. For this, you will need an appropriate policy document explaining how you handle special categories of data.

There may be several overlapping lawful reasons, for example, your contract (sick pay or to identify eligibility for permanent health insurance), or your legal obligations not to unfairly dismiss, not to discriminate against a disabled employee, to identify reasonable adjustments where applicable and to ensure they are fit to return to work.

Click here for a sample procedure.

Use telephone conversations positively

When a sick employee phones in, take down as much information as you can. Always be firm, polite and sensitive.

  • Make arrangements to make contact later in the day (or the following day) for a progress report so that you can plan for the following day.
  • Ask what is wrong with the employee. What are the symptoms? When did he first experience the symptoms? Is the employee seeking medical advice?
  • Make a note of the date and time of the telephone call to ensure that your reporting procedures have been followed.

You can use this data in the return-to-work interview.

Trigger points

Many companies now have a point at which concern is formally triggered and which suggests that an employee’s attendance requires review.

The trigger point is determined by the individual business. You can set very high standards, but remember that these are always open to the overriding requirement of reasonableness.

It is helpful to identify the persistent short-term offenders, as these often pose the greatest disruption to the business. Someone who takes five days off in one episode is far less disruptive than five one-day absences taken on five separate occasions.

Increasingly, organisations are using a combination of elements as trigger points. For example, an organisation might set the trigger point at three periods of absence in a rolling six-month period, or eight days of absence, whichever comes first.

At what point should an organisation start to take action? There is no legal standard of attendance. Some organisations use a certain number of periods of absence in a specific timescale as a trigger: for example, five or more absences in any 12-month period.

Others use the Bradford Factor (see below). This formula is particularly useful for revealing staff with high levels of short-term absence. Certain types of absence should be excluded from this calculation: for example, absences related to pregnancy, disability or underlying illness.

Different employers have formulated their own triggers. This will depend on the capabilities of your recording and monitoring systems.


Triggers may encompass a number of different patterns of absence, for example:

  • Two or more occasions of absence in any rolling three-month period
  • The loss of 4.5 per cent of working time in a rolling 12 months
  • An absence which exceeds 21 consecutive days.

Triggers may be tied to a specific stage in the absence procedure: for example, informal counselling or a formal warning. The aim is to encourage improvement while imposing effective sanctions. It is usual to agree attendance targets at this point. If the target is not met, disciplinary action usually follows.

It is important to put a specific figure on the improvement required and not just talk vaguely about improvement. Be precise. If you are not specific you won’t get the results you want.


A manager interviewed a female employee about her appalling attendance record.

The manager pointed out that Doris’ attendance record was unacceptably poor and that she had taken 20 days’ sick in the last three months. He asked Doris to make an effort to improve her attendance and advised her that if she did not do so he would have to take her through the disciplinary process for non-attendance and she might ultimately be dismissed.

Doris agreed to all this and three months later they reconvened their meeting. At the second meeting the manager discovered that she had indeed improved – she had taken a mere 16 days of sickness absence, instead of 20. So he got what he asked for, not what he wanted.

What he should have said was something along the lines of ‘If you are off work more than three days during the next three months, I will talk to you again as part of our formal disciplinary procedure.’


Where an employee is clearly making strenuous efforts to attend work and they are ill with a genuine illness during the review period, it wouldn’t be reasonable to immediately enter into formal disciplinary action. You have to demonstrate reasonableness and some flexibility. Continue monitoring and act accordingly.

Bradford factor

One method used to indicate the persistent short-term offender is the Bradford Factor:

(number of episodes)² x total days off

Using this formula, persistent short-term offenders can be clearly highlighted. For example:

  • One absence of five days = Bradford Factor 5 (one episode x one episode x 5)
  • Five absences of one day = Bradford Factor 125 (5 episodes x 5 episodes x 5)

Return to work discussions

Hold a return to work meeting at the end of a period of absence. In most organisations, discussions will be informal and brief and should be held as soon as possible following the period of absence. It is generally intended to:

  •  welcome the employee back
  • check he is well enough to be at work
  • discuss the reason for the absence
  • update the employee on anything that has happened at work he has have been absent.

If the employee has been absent from work often, a return to work discussion can be an opportunity to discuss any underlying problems causing this. For example, if the sickness is work-related or if he is having any problems at work or home.

Contact during sick leave

If the employee is away for longer than a few days, give consideration to making periodic contact. Try to reach agreement as to how often and how the contact should be made. This should be used to:

  • check on the employee’s wellbeing
  • be clear about what pay the employee is receiving
  • see if there is anything the employer can be doing to support the employee
  • explain any updates or changes that are taking place within the organisation.