Good performance management starts with good absence management

Absence management is so simple it often gets overlooked by the busy manager. Traditionally, all a manager had to do was take a call from their team member, ensure the data was recorded, stay in contact during the absence, and then conduct a 10 minute return to work interview. Yet, so often these tasks ‘slip’ through the manager’s fingers, particularly when it is a short term absence of a trusted team member. What many managers fail to acknowledge is that good performance management consists of daily communication, conversations, instructions, praise and correction with their staff. A truly effective manager is never not performance managing. And nothing is better suited for a manager to gain the reputation of being a firm, fair, and supportive manager than absence management. It is an official conversation that every member of staff will experience and is seen by all to be carried out on a regular basis. Let’s look at two scenarios and their consequences. The first is the common scenario prevalent in many organisations. The second is the scenario we would want for each and every organisation.


The manager is busy and does not have time for ‘those forms and procedures’. This is not a conscious decision but more a habit of work. They remain unware of any possible sickness issues in their team. Eventually they realise that a staff member appears to be taking a lot of short-term absences. However, they are not sure so they attempt to find records and start checking with colleagues, ‘Can you remember, was Alan at last month’s meeting or not?’ They might check with HR who will respond with the standard phrase, ‘Without accurate records you can take no further action’. So the manager starts to keep records and conduct return to work interviews with this team member. Consequences for the manager:

  • They demonstrate by their actions that you can ignore company policies and procedures when deemed to be unimportant. The manager will now have to expend more effort to hold their team accountable to following other policies and procedures.
  • Further they have demonstrated that ‘I have no time’ is a reasonable excuse for not completing tasks that are inconvenient or appear inconsequential. The cry of ‘I have no time’ can become the standard response to every request made within a team and the bane of many managers’ lives. However, this is something the manager has themselves created as individuals follow what their management does.
  • The monitored individual will probably be defensive in their responses at the unplanned absence meetings. No-one likes to be caught out and, as they are now being held to account, they will feel the need to justify. If the causes for the unplanned absence were genuine the individual may respond with righteous indignation. In addition, they could feel unfairly singled out if other individuals, who they perceive to have taken similar absences, are not treated the same. This could lead to an aggrieved and demotivated employee and, in worst cases, accusations of victimisation, bullying and grievance.
  • The rest of the team might be feeling disappointed, possibly even cheated, that taking the odd day off sick is now being monitored. With luck resulting in a grudging respect for their manager. Or they could be relieved that their manager is finally taking action with someone who has been ‘getting away with it’ for too long and quickly enough for them to retain their respect for the manager.


The manager records information accurately for each occasion of unplanned absence. They remain in supportive contact with the employee throughout any extended period of absence. The manager talks proactively with the employee about what is needed for them to return to work as soon as they are able. A return to work interview is conducted for every employee, no matter how short the absence or how trusted the employee. Any patterns of unplanned absence are immediately noticed and discussed with the individual with the appropriate specialist advice sought where needed. Consequences for the manager:

  • They are seen to be taking unplanned absence seriously and to be following the agreed organisational policies and procedures and can now confidential request others to do the same.
  • They show that they care for the employee and are actively working to ensure good health within the workplace.
  • They demonstrate that all staff are treated consistently and fairly.
  • They show that they notice. This is most important. Any misdemeanours that occur are immediately, simply and firmly addressed.
  • The manager gains the respect of their team from being seen to actively manage their staff.

Unplanned absence is a simple procedure which takes a short amount of time to complete. Yet the results are huge. Good performance management always starts with good absence management. If a manager fails to complete absence management procedures they are immediately placed on the back foot when it comes to resolving more serious performance matters. However, if a manager is seen, on a weekly/monthly basis, to notice, follow procedures and conduct fair, firm and supportive conversations around the issues of attendance then staff will know that they are likely to respond in exactly the same way with other more serious matters. This is about managers building the right reputation with their staff. And effective unplanned absence management is a golden opportunity to build that reputation.

Sue Ingram is the Founder and Director of Converse Well, a company which provides training for managers on conducting essential performance feedback conversations. She is an Honorary Teaching Fellow at the University of Lancaster, a speaker and author.