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UK “worst country” for managing absence, says welfare secretary

UK is “worst country” for managing absence, says welfare secretary Ian Duncan Smith. But how long does it take to properly manage poor performance or attendance? “Just 3 hours”, says myHRdept, 3 hours will normally resolve a case usually with one of 2 results: the employee in focus shapes up (problem over) or ships out of their own accord.

At myHRdept we’ve been supporting small employers for over 13 years, and our own experience of SMEs’ willingness to tackle poor performance or attendance does indeed resonate with IDS’ remarks reported in the Sunday Telegraph on July 12th. We routinely experience reticence to deal with issues, and often see substandard work and poor absence tolerated sometimes for years. Employers often tell us they feel powerless to deal with the problem, or simply don’t have the time to do so.

Whether this stems from lack of confidence or the age old problem in smaller business that relationships are simply too personal to take action, the end result is the same – the employee assumes they can get away with it, because they have done so far, and no one has said anything.

Small businesses are similar to families to some degree, and we should expect high standards from employees as we hope for from our dependents. If a child goes off the rails, we’re unlikely to have our house repossessed, nor have to work every weekend to make ends meet. If a child goes off the rails most parents will do their upmost, through a combination of carrot and stick, to put it back on the rails again. And if we’re willing to manage children that way, why are so we so reluctant to tackle employee issues?

In our experience it takes 3 hours to properly manage an absence or performance issue, and usually one such intervention is all it takes. An employee with 15 days’ absence causes 120 hours of disruption to the business, not to mention the stress placed on colleagues and owners picking up their workload. If it really does take only 3 hours, isn’t it worth the investment in time? The following case study is real, based on one of our customers, but the names have been changed.

Adele worked in a service business, mainly as a receptionist but with some administrative responsibilities too. The standard of her work was broadly ok, but she was prone to errors. From time to time she was unexpectedly absent, and this caused a major headache for the owners who would have to arrange cover for her, or cover themselves. Typically Adele was off 7 or 8 times a year, with absences lasting from a day to 3 days. As far as we could tell the situation stretched back more than 10 years.

When the business contracted myHRdept to become their HR advisors, Adele was top of the agenda. The owners were bitter about employment law and their inability to act, but in fact their biggest barrier was themselves, and their unwillingness to have the ‘difficult conversation’. Having put in place and circulated an attendance policy, we waited for Adele’s next absence, which wasn’t long coming. Here’s what happened then:

  1. myHRdept supplied a return to work interview form
  2. One of the owners conducted a return to work interview (30 minutes) in which it was established there were no underlying health concerns
  3. myHRdept drafted an invitation to a disciplinary hearing letter for the owners, who passed this on (not without a lot of nervousness) to Adele
  4. The hearing took place (1 hour with preparation) chaired by the other owner (Adele accompanied by a colleague) in which Adele’s absence history was calmly laid out and shown to be much worse than other employees. She was asked whether she had any explanation, she did not. After a short adjournment (during which the owners spoke with myHRdept) Adele was informed that she was to receive a first warning, and that in future she would be expected to attend at least as well as other employees to avoid escalating warnings and possible dismissal. She would also have her attendance formally reviewed monthly.
  5. myHRdept drafted the warning letter and an invitation to appeal, which Adele did not.
  6. 3 weeks later and week before the first formal review Adele resigned, informing the owners she had a job elsewhere.
  7. The new recruits (sourced as it happened by myHRdept) were a breath of fresh air, and the business is now a pleasant place to work – for staff and owners.

The above is a true chain of events, but some of the detail has been changed to preserve the anonymity of the individuals. In the event Adele resigned, but an improved attendance would have been equally acceptable if accompanied by a commensurate improvement in attitude and performance (which would have been next on the agenda to tackle.) Whether the ‘trigger’ issue was a performance issue or (as it happened) an absence issue was immaterial – either way the process would have been similar. The point is that because the owners were eventually prepared to confront their responsibilities, they achieved a business-positive outcome and their own lives improved.

How long did it take? For them a little under 3 hours (with lots of chats with myHRdept in between stages), plus a couple of sleepless nights. Admittedly they had myHRdept on hand to write the letters for them and act as a sounding board, but we estimate that even without them the process with the necessary research would have come in at 6 – 8 hours in total. Now that’s a chunk of time, but isn’t it still worth it to fix a 10 year problem that caused 120 hours of disruption eachyear? Running a business isn’t easy, but there is a temptation for owners to avoid managing these issues; citing pressure of work as their first defence.

We’ve heard the excuses hundreds of times over the last 13 years, and no doubt will do so many more times to come. The Great British SME will be even greater if it learns to manage employees better, fairly expecting high performance, flexibility and good attendance. At myHRdept we’ll continue to do our bit to help customers excel in these areas – but even with us they’ll need to do their bit too, and invest the time to properly and fairly deal with employee issues as they arise. There are many many more Adele’s out there. With proper management some of them will shape up, some will ship out. Either way, business improves.

NB: When dealing with absenteeism it is vital to establish whether or not there are underlying medical conditions as a part of the process and to properly investigate any apparent medical issues. When dealing with poor performance the process described above would have been dealt with under a Capability Procedure instead of the Disciplinary Procedure and adequate time and support would have been given to reach acceptable and defined performance standards.

If you’re thinking of outsourcing your HR why not contact With full service Premium Plus packages for medium sized companies typically from only a few hundred per month (and from only £100 per month for smaller companies and start-ups) and fixed price HR support options available for one-off issues, we believe we offer the best combination of quality and price available in the UK. Call us on 01628 820515 to discuss your requirements or email us here and we’ll call you back.

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