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By Barbara J. Bowes

I’m not coming in today, I have a cold, I have to drop my mom off at the doctor’s office, I’ll be late, or I have to take my dog to the vet. On and on it goes, one excuse after another regarding employee tardiness and absenteeism. And here you thought employees wanted to work!

Yet, while many retail owners complain about the lack of a labour force in the retail industry, they fail to realize that absenteeism is also a big issue and one that also has a substantial financial impact on the bottom line. In fact, the impact of absenteeism and general poor attendance is often called a hidden cost because most small retailers don’t track their absences and don’t accrue these costs. In other words, they are often unaware of the total financial impact on their retail performance.

So, how big of an issue is absenteeism?  While employee absenteeism in the general corporate world sits around 9.3 days per full time employee, a recent study by Kronos, a human capital management firm marketing technology solutions for human resources, suggests that the retail industry experiences unplanned absences at approximately seven per cent of scheduled labour hours. Not only that but 40 per cent of managers in Canada identify they typically only receive one to three hours notice of the absence, which leaves them scrambling to fill their work schedules.

Another technology firm, Oracle Retail, suggests that retailer’s fear of employee absence is second only to the failure of their website! That’s because absenteeism has a very noticeable impact on customer service, which in turn can significantly impact customer loyalty. Not only that but the retailer is often forced to use temporary and less experienced staff to manage the staffing shortage. This can also lead to lost productivity, time spent on training, increased errors and morale problems and, of course, the cost of replacement employees and/or overtime pay.

However, before you jump to a technology solution, it is important for owners to conduct an investigation to determine just what is causing the absenteeism problem.  The question is whether the challenge of absenteeism is a personal problem, the result of poor training and/or a performance problem. 

Absenteeism can also be due to a lack of clear direction and expectations from management and/or poor communication and leadership. In this case, the issue is often not setting and communicating attendance expectations, holding employees accountable for their attendance and failing to manage the overall situation of the employee absences at the earliest stages.

Also, in my experience as a human resource consultant, I find the issue of absenteeism in smaller business organizations is often related to the interpersonal relationships between the supervisor/manager and the employee. These managers are often young, and inexperienced with little to no management training. On the other hand, if the manager is older, they will often be quite set in their ways. Both of these leaders frequently apply a top down, do as I say approach to supervision.

However, the issue of absenteeism isn’t about an employee who is occasionally absent from work, it’s about an employee who is frequently absent without a valid excuse. This is what commands most of a manager’s attention. The following provides some basic strategies to begin dealing with this issue.

Establish absenteeism policyCreate an attendance and absenteeism policy including the start/finish work times, absence notice requirement and meet with each new employee to set attendance expectations. Review the HR policies in general and especially focus on the absenteeism policy and how to report the need for time off and the need for physician notes. Discuss the importance of a positive attitude toward attendance versus that of entitlement and inform the employee of the potential loss of pay provisions.

Train your managersFirst and foremost, train your manager(s) to use a coaching leadership style so that if employees are experiencing personal challenges, they will inform the manager in good time, which in turn enables advance planning.  Train managers on how to apply the absenteeism policy and the importance of dealing with issues as soon as possible.  Also provide training to help managers understand the financial impact of absenteeism and the impact it may have on their own bonus and reward structure.

Explore reasons for absenteeismThere are plenty of reasons for absenteeism, including personal illness, but it also includes issues of job satisfaction. Explore the reasons for the absences and determine if issues such as job structure, tasks, challenge, and/or goals and objectives and/or staff skillsets are playing a role. If so, analyze the job and determine if positive changes could be made so as to enhance job satisfaction.

Keep trackTake time to track your employee absences and as soon as you discover a pattern, meet with the employee and raise the issue. Most employees don’t think about tracking their own absences and will be surprised when you confront them with your tracking data. Be sure to conduct return to work interviews to clarify the reasons for absenteeism and to discuss expectations.

Check for burnoutIf the retail business has been short staffed for long periods of time, it may well cause burnout for remaining staff. Working overtime and doing two jobs for long periods of time is not good for employee health. Be sure to have backup staff on call.

Integrate attendance into performance appraisalWhile many smaller business owners have more of an informal performance management approach, be sure to include attendance as part of your performance appraisal process. Consider a reward system for good attendance. This could be as simple as a gift card or being recognized as employee of the month.

Allow shift-swapsAllow the manager to work with staff to enable voluntary shift swaps where possible and appropriate. If a shift swap is allowed between employees themselves, be sure to consistently report who is on duty and when. Keep accurate documentation for payroll.

Offer employee benefits – While many business owners feel providing benefits is too financially onerous, it really does pay off. Employees become more personally health conscious and can also access wellness services that help them stay well. Employee benefits are also an excellent recruitment and retention tool.

Engage in effective change managementIt is well known that when new ways of doing things and new technology are introduced, absenteeism may increase. Plan your change processes effectively so that employee fear and anxiety is reduced as training and new procedures are implemented.

Absenteeism in a retail environment is a serious problem yet we know that many businesses do not track absences, do not conduct return to work interviews and/or do not determine the accumulated financial impact from these absences. However, there are definitely solid human resource solutions, as suggested above, that can be applied to the issue of absenteeism. Give them a try, it’s worth it! 

Source: White Paper: Absence Management is the ‘Last Easy Money’ for Retailers, Craig Patterson, December 12, 2018; Managing the Cost of Absenteeism in Retail, Oracle Retail, Viewpoint.

Barbara J. Bowes, FCPHR, CMC, CCP, M.Ed., is a Manitoba based human resource consultant, the author of eight books, a radio personality, a speaker, an executive coach and a workshop leader. Additionally, she is chairwoman for the Manitoba Women’s Advisory Council. She can be reached at

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