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The Saga of Sally Sickly and Mary Goldbrick

Personnel Vignettes appears periodically in Bankers' Hotline. Submitted by various personnel executives, this series appears without attribution to the author by request.

Chronic absenteeism is one of the most galling and difficult to resolve problems in personnel . . . and it is one which can have a huge hidden cost to your organization. We had a situation which developed a couple of years ago which may illustrate the type of difficulties involved.

Sally Sickly had uncontrolled high blood pressure but she was a hard-working, dedicated and lovely lady. She missed time only when it was absolutely necessary and was often at work when she was clearly not feeling well enough to be on the job.

Mary Goldbrick, on the other hand, was often out with a variety of one and two-day illnesses for which there seemed to be no pattern or discernable cause. With two small children at home, she could usually be counted on to have an extended illness each summer, when the children were home from school.

Sally's supervisor made allowances for her when he could while Mary Goldbrick's supervisor had been documenting her frequent absences with formal written warnings. He finally came to us at the point when he wanted to terminate her.

In Human Resources' pre-termination investigation, we discovered that both Sally and Mary had missed what we would have considered an excessive enough number of days to warrant termination. We did not see how we could terminate Mary Goldbrick without also terminating Sally Sickly as well.

We saw in this situation a dilemma we had not previously seen so clearly. A decision to fire both employees could have been supported on the objective basis of the number of days missed but it would have been immensely unfair to Sally. A decision to fire Mary and retain Sally could only be justified by the subjective evaluations of the reasons behind each employee's frequent absences.

We decided not to fire either employee: instead, we changed our policy.

We made the number of days absent a factor in our employee performance review process. Supervisors were instructed to work through our form to arrive at a performance level for the employee being reviewed and then to consider time lost in connection with the amount of raise recommended.

  1. Employees with acceptable attendance records were given the full amount of the increase they were entitled to by their review.
  2. Employees who missed more than "n" days would receive only one-half of this amount.
  3. Employees who missed more than "n + 1" days would receive no increase.

The way this has worked, the Sally Sickly's of our world would no longer be subject to the risk of disciplinary action because of physical conditions they could not control. Their continued employment was assured to this extent, but there would be no raises in years during which they crossed the limits for time lost.

In Mary Goldbrick's case, she was also denied an increase that year but her newly-manifested good health since then has almost been astonishing enough to have us believing in miracles.

Copyright © 1990 Bankers' Hotline. Originally appeared in Bankers' Hotline, Vol. 1, No. 8, 8/90

First published on 08/01/1990

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