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How to... tackle absence

Responsibility for dealing with absence in a fair and consistent manner sits not only with HR but with managers. So with ownership of absence issues dispersed across all levels of management, the question is: what can be done to ensure staff are treated in a fair and consistent way?

As an independent body for contact centre planning we find that this issue is no more prevalent than in such workplaces, where workers are split into teams of 10 to 15, managed by a team leader. HR support for team leaders, responsible for absence management, is critical.

1 Dust down your policies

Policies may have been written some time ago. First check they are up to date with current law, then find out when managers were last trained in them. Managers change and there is a need to refresh people. Regular reviews and refresher sessions will maintain consistency.

2 Hold calibration sessions

A great way to understand how policies are being used in practice is to hold calibration sessions, which are often used in performance management circles. Calibration sessions are discussions, based on analysis of trends and outcomes, to highlight any differences in approach taken and results achieved. Using real-life examples will help ensure consistency, understanding of differences and justifications, and highlight any issues with the policies themselves.

3 Provide a support structure

Team leaders may be in a managerial role for the first time and have many new skills to develop. Dealing with absence issues is one of those skills, so the support of the experts is extremely useful. Consider an advice line into HR or perhaps a buddy system where HR supports the manager.

4 Clear reporting is crucial

Certainly in the world of contact centres, data and reporting are common practice. Available data should be used to provide triggers for managers to escalate certain absence issues. A scoring system such as the Bradford Factor can be useful: occasions of absence multiplied by total number of days absent (ie, it is worse to be off work five times for one day each time than to have one period of absence for five days). With each trigger there should be a set of agreed actions, such as return-to-work interviews, informal discussion, enactment of the disciplinary process or referral to a health professional. Exceptions to these can be managed with the HR support/buddy system or a pre-agreed occupational health plan.

5 Get staff back to work

Managers should be encouraged to look for ways to get people back to work. This thinking needs to happen early in the absence process, as the longer someone is off work, the harder it is to return. If possible, bring people back on site for a meeting, looking at phased returns or reduced hours. This has become especially important with the introduction of fit notes.

6 Policies aren't everything

Remember responsibility lies with managers and that policies only take you so far. Each case needs to be approached on its own merits; the triggers and actions that are agreed are there to start the process and ensure all issues are dealt with. The way they are handled will be different in each case, so the support of HR is crucial. An integrated approach involving the manager, HR and other support functions can provide fresh solutions. For example, Canterbury County Council let an employee work from Yorkshire while caring for her ill mother, rather than having to be absent on carers' leave.

Key points

- Get an up-to-date policy and ensure every manager is trained or refreshed.
- Agree a support structure for front-line managers.
- Actions need to be applied consistently and fairly.
- Solutions can be specific to the individual case.