Getting a Handle on Attendance Problems: 10 Steps Every Federal Supervisor Can Take

Most human resource problems experienced by supervisors relate to attendance. Discipline is taken for misconduct involving attendance than all other causes put together. Federal employee attitudes about leave are changing for several reasons, including the fact that many FERS employees see sick leave as being analogous to “personal days.” Here are steps a supervisor can take to get a handle on leave problems.

The vast majority (some say in excess of 75%) of day-to-day human resource problems experienced by supervisors relate to attendance. There is no question that more discipline is taken for misconduct involving attendance than all other causes put together. This article addresses what every supervisor and manager can do to get ahead of the curve on attendance issues.

A series of changes in Federal employee benefits and entitlements over the last two decades have prompted employee attitude changes about work attendance and perhaps, unwittingly, provoked some clashes in values between employees and managers.

Influences on Changing Attitudes

  • Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS) employees (hired since 1/1/87), unlike those covered by the earlier system may not get credit for sick leave balances those employees may have at retirement. As a matter of fact, unused sick leave is forfeited. As a result, many FERS employees see sick leave as analogous to “personal days” in private sector settings to be used as earned.
  • The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and employee’s growing awareness of their rights under it have broadened both the basis for using leave and strengthened the employee’s entitlement to use it.
  • Flexible and alternative work schedules and expanding work at home programs change attitudes toward the nature of attendance and the use of leave.
  • Many managers and supervisors are not covered by FERS (and may be in their last decade before retiring), are not permitted the same flexibility in schedule selection and often find the complexities of FMLA challenging at best.

Other factors are involved, of course. Some managers may be covered by FERs and others may welcome employee flexible scheduling but as I conduct classes and work with supervisors, it’s obvious, at least to me, that the culture clash between older and younger workers as well as between supervisors and some people in the work unit over attendance issues creates a lot of frustration on all parts of the workforce.

So how does a supervisor go about dealing with attendance issues in light of the above.

Ten Steps to Follow to Effectively Manage Attendance in Your Organization

As with all supervisory and managerial actions, it helps to have a supportive boss and competent advisors mostly from the Human Resources function but also from within agency counsel when issues become contentious. In considering this ten step approach, recognize that agencies differ in their approach to employee problem solving and organizational cultures differ as well.

Step One: Get Smart about Attendance Issues

Create a desktop guide to leave and attendance of your own. It should include your agency’s policies on leave, attendance and FMLA. Include as well a copy of any relevant language from the collective bargaining agreement if the employees in your organization are in a represented bargaining unit. Add to your guide OPM’s leave guidance. You can find this under Links to Fact Sheets on Leave Programs. Also, while you’re at it get OPM’s information on FMLA.

Step Two: Establish Clear Expectations

Every employee should know:

  • When they are entitled to use leave.
  • Any documentation requirements.
  • When leave must be requested in advance.
  • Any special approval requirements for multi-day leave requests and times during the year when leave approval may be limited.
  • Procedures to be followed to request leave.
  • How you expect unscheduled leave requests to be handled and your contact information.
  • When and how you expect to be contacted. i.e., What interaction with you is involved whether using a form such as an SF-71, email, other electronic or verbal or written process.
  • That the office timekeeper is not authorized to grant leave.
  • That the responsibility for requesting and documenting leave is theirs.
  • That the responsibility and authority to grant a leave request rests with you.

Step Three: Brief Your Staff Collectively and Individuals When Necessary

At least quarterly, remind your staff of general leave matters such as vacations, peak workload, use or lose procedures, etc. that are time sensitive and, while you’re at it, revisit call-in procedures and contact information.

Step Four: Follow Some Absolutes

I believe there are absolute rules to follow in leave administration:

  1. Everyone who does not call in an absence should get a piece of paper. It may be as simple as an instruction on leave requesting requirements or as complex as discipline for someone takes off on a day they knew they were needed for a critical operation.
  2. Every leave request should be documented and generally in advance.
  3. Every use of sick leave other than the Agency’s minimum (often 3 days) or leave pursuant to FMLA should be accompanied by medical documentation tailored by you in an email or memo directed specifically to that person.
  4. Every employee who demonstrates leave abuse should first be placed on clear notice of your concern and their responsibility.
  5. Every employee whose leave abuse continues past the notice in #4 should be placed on leave restriction. (I’ll cover leave restriction in a later article – stay tuned.)
  6. Persistent leave abuse requires progressive discipline. Don’t do it and morale will suffer. People get tired of carrying others particularly if they believe those people to be abusers.
  7. Don’t talk to anyone other than someone in your direct line of management, HR advisor or attorney about an employee’s leave problems. Do not discuss employee problems with peers or subordinates.

Step Five: Apply the Rules Consistently

Fair and equitable are just that. Keep in mind the difference between equal and equitable. There’s a world of difference between a second event of tardiness of 20 minutes and persistent failure to call in or document leave. Sympathy for the productive likeable worker having a possibly temporary tough time and holding disagreeable Harry to every nuance of every rule may be difficult to sell to the discrimination complaint administrative judge when we treat people differently without a legitimate business reason for doing so.

Step Six: Keep a Log of Leave Requests and Use and any Counseling

Keep your own day planner type log of leave use, documentation, memoranda you’ve issued and the like. You can toss it after a couple of years but it will serve to jog your memory if problems persist or worsen.

Step Seven: Document Issues and Problems and Share with the Employee Involved

Do Not Keep Secret Records. Every memorandum you write about an employee should be addressed to that employee. Your documented concerns create a clear message to the employee and put them on notice that you are paying attention. Get some help from HR or your Agency advisors when drafting these.

Step Eight: Get Help from the Folks in Human Resources

I’ve referred to Human Resources a couple of times. A skilled employee relations person or an HR generalist with experience advising managers see lots of attendance related problems and want to help you get the issue solved early before discipline becomes necessary. One of the worst things to happen for federal supervisors was consolidating (that’s a code word for lessening) HR services, particularly in DOD and more specifically, in the field. You may have trouble finding help but be persistent.

Step Nine: Act Promptly, Properly and Decisively to Solve Problems

Attendance problems tend to fester and not get better on their own. There are a wide range of tools in your attendance problem solving toolbox. Start with the least contentious, counseling with a same day follow-up memo documenting the discussion and move on as needed until the issue is resolved. If you ignore the problem, it’ll usually get worse and dropping a big problem on the organization benefits no one.

Step Ten: Follow Up and Stay on Top of Attendance Issues

Check FedSmith, OPM and other information sources for changes in leave policies. Update your own requirements from time to time. Look for ways to better communicate your concerns to your folks. Stay in touch with each employee you supervise. The biggest prevention tool is regular contact. I believe alienation is both mutual and progressive. The further apart you get from an employee, the harder it is to work with them.

I think you will get support in taking these ten steps from your agency.

Before I end, let me say thanks to the FedSmith readers who made Advanced Bargaining Training in Newport RI a success. Look for our ads on FedSmith announcing upcoming courses in the Washington, DC and other areas.

As regular readers know, the views represented in this article are mine. If you find fault, it’s mine alone. Thanks again for your comments.

About the Author

Bob Gilson is a consultant with a specialty in working with and training Federal agencies to resolve employee problems at all levels. A retired agency labor and employee relations director, Bob has authored or co-authored a number of books dealing with Federal issues and also conducts training seminars.