Getting to the Root Cause of Attendance Problems

“Our supervisors just need to get more disciplined about administering the attendance policy.”

“We are just being too lenient with FMLA”

“There’s no way he’s really sick again.”

Attendance issues can be frustrating. In fact, the traditional methods of trying to “fix” such problems, often aggravate them.

Going Deeper

There was a point in my career where I became known as the “attendance expert” The truth is there was absolutely nothing complex about it. I just asked questions.
A department would have an attendance problem, and I’d get on a plane or train and live with them for a while. I’d talk to everyone, observe, look at processes, and gain an understanding of what it was like to work there every day.

The problems were complex

It wasn’t just that

  • she had “daycare” issues she had discovered her daycare provider was on crack cocaine
  • he was a FMLA abuser, he was “this close” to getting his degree, and the new mandatory shift was making him miss the last few weeks of class
  • It wasn’t that she “didn’t care”, it was that the new computer system was totally intimidating

Attendance issues run deep, and the questions are important. By digging deeper, we were always able to cut the attendance issues in half

You don’t need magic You just need you and some open-minded questions
How can you dig deeper?
How can you slow down and learn more?

Perhaps they won’t (don’t want to) come to work.

Perhaps they can’t (something else is getting in the way)

Perhaps it’s some combination of the two.

I like to use a 4 quadrant matrix to structure the thinking. On one axis, run the continuum of why employees “can” and “can’t” come to work. On the other, the other explore why they “want” or “don’t want” to come to work.

This tool can be used at a team level (thinking about both issues and individuals) or in very large organizations.

Getting to Root Cause of Attendance Issues

A few possible questions. I am sure you can also fill in the blanks.

Can/Want (Encourage Me)

  • What are the common characteristics of those employees skipping to work on this team?
  • What best practices could be shared?
  • ?

Can/Don’t Want (Engage Me)

  • How are the frontline leaders interacting with their teams?
  • Who is being recognized for what?
  • ?

Can’t/Want (Help Me)

  • Do employees need support with finding safe child/elder care or other work-life issues?
  • How could scheduling be made more flexible or consistent?
  • What behaviors is your attendance policy inadvertently driving?
  • ?

Can’t/Don’t Want (Help Me Leave)

  • What are you doing to manage performance?
  • What could make your attendance policy more effective?
  • Who is in the wrong job, and how can you help them find the right one?
  • Do you have employees abusing FMLA?
  • ?
Posted in Employee Engagement & Energy, Results & Execution and tagged , , , , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt, Founder of Let’s Grow Leaders, helps leaders around the world achieve breakthrough results, without losing their soul. A former Verizon Wireless executive, she has over two decades of experience in sales, customer service, and HR. She was recently named on Inc's list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers and American Management Association's 50 Leaders to Watch. She’s the author of 3 books: Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul, Overcoming an Imperfect Boss, and Glowstone Peak.


  1. 99% of my team live on the campus…one of the benefits of running camp and conference center….attendance, not an issue. I love this post. It’s a classic example of one of my favorite leadership axioms; there’s always a reason behind the reason. Going deep and wide like this is what makes you a great leader I’m sure. In case I ever move on from here and have a team where attendance can be an issue….I appreciate this tool. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. Eric, Thanks so much for your comment. I actually thought of you as I posted this one… I thought, surely Eric doesn’t have attendance issues in his world… not sure he will have a comment today. And here you are 😉 Thanks so much for being such a contributing member of the Let’s Grow Leaders community.

  3. Karin,

    Thank you for the insights into a problem that plagues all too many organizations.

    As you point out, the problems underlying absenteeism are indeed complex. But digging deeper is very much worth the effort – particularly for organizations serious about the topic of employee engagement. I suspect your experience has taught you that measures of employee engagement and employee absenteesim often move in opposite directions, and since many companies measure abseentism more regularly than they do employee engagement, changes in absenteeism can serve as a leading indicator of how an employee engagement survey may turn out.

    • Tony, great to have you join in this conversation… I know you are very experienced and talented at dealing with such issues. Yes, it’s a great lead measure on employee engagement. Thanks for adding that.

  4. To your credit, and the companies that hired you, the employees trusted you and felt safe enough to tell you the truth. The information you received by asking simple but powerful questions offered a real opportunity for leaders in the company to strengthen organizational performance, build community, and increase engagement in the workplace. A “win” all the way around, and a great demonstration of how companies–and proactive leaders–can balance the needs of people with performance issues and come out ahead!

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