By Bob Patchett, Consultant at Croner

Turbo-charge your absence management with just one simple technique — a well-planned and well-executed return-to-work interview. Does this sound like exaggeration? Well, many surveys indicate that it is not. However, like any turbo-charged vehicle, if it is to perform well you need to understand how it works and how to drive it.

Absence management techniques follow three main approaches — rewarding good attendance, penalising absenteeism, and changing the culture. The first of these approaches has limited value because it rewards people who had no intention of being absent, whereas you need to pay a large incentive to persuade someone who was considering having a day off to come to work instead, and most schemes are not so generous. Penalising absentees certainly does work, but changing the culture is even better because it can be made permanent. The well-conducted return-to-work interview contains a noticeable element of penalty but essentially changes the culture.

As with most changes, if you introduce return-to-work interviews into your management practice you should first explain their purpose to your workforce. People who attend work regularly resent colleagues who do not, and this resentment is also directed towards you if you fail to act against the sinners. Therefore, make no bones about it, but stress that you intend to take action by introducing return-to-work interviews in order to reduce unnecessary absences. When you have determined your detailed approach, explain it to your employees but emphasise that, if anyone feels that they are being treated unfairly under the system, they will always have a right to appeal.

The success of your return-to-work interview regime will depend upon three factors — consistency of application, the selection of appropriate people to carry out the interviews, and the quality of their training.

Consistency is important, otherwise poor attenders will still take a gamble on their boss being too busy to interview them. Also there is the risk of you being accused of unlawful discrimination. You must determine when a return-to-work interview should be carried out. Arranging one only when you feel that someone’s absences are excessive brings in too much subjectivity, provides an excuse for not acting if you are otherwise busy, and again lays you open to complaints of discrimination. Therefore decide, for example, whether to carry out an interview if someone is absent more than once in any four-week period, or if they are absent at any time without permission.

The choice of who should carry out these interviews may be determined by your management resources and their abilities.

You should consider the third factor, training of interviewers, most carefully. A poor interviewer can, at best, fail to gain improvements in attendance and, at worst, do considerable damage. A good interviewer, on the other hand, really can make significant improvements to your attendance levels and thus the productivity of your organisation. Ideally have the training carried out by someone who is experienced in the technique and is enthusiastic about it. Trainees themselves need to be inspired if they are to accept the need for the technique and are to make good use of the training. They must fully understand the process, learn how to deal with resistance and poor excuses, and have plenty of practice before being launched onto the workforce.

A return-to-work interview should be arranged as soon as possible, in confidence and without interruption so that the flow of conversation is not interrupted. The employee should first be required to complete a form explaining the absence in the manager’s presence. Surprisingly, this seems to produce more honest answers. The manager in turn should have all relevant papers such as absence records and medical certificates. The form provides a useful structure for the interview. The manager should read out every answer, look for confirmation that it is accurate and then, if appropriate, ask a question.

For example: “You were away for three days.” Answer: “Yes.” “But you did not see the doctor.” Answer: “No.” This might be followed up with: “But if it was not serious enough for you to visit the doctor, why did your stomach upset cause a three-day absence?” This gives the manager opportunity to point out what should be done in these circumstances, such as ringing the surgery or consulting a pharmacist — or taking fewer days off. There may be a good reason for the employee’s action, but he or she has an obligation to attend work or to give a fully satisfactory reason for the absence. The manager can emphasise the employee’s contractual obligation without rancour if the return-to-work interview is conducted formally, with questions being asked in a firm but friendly way.

Interviewing employees on return from any absence means that there is an opportunity to ask about their holiday, or how the funeral went, thereby strengthening the bond between employee and employer. If the absence has been for some time, eg a two-week annual holiday, you will able to inform the employee of anything that has happened during that time that may affect him or her. Also, after a long-term sickness absence, you would need to assess whether the employee is fit to resume normal duties and whether he or she may need a bit of retraining.

Find out more at www.cronersolutions.co.uk