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Absenteeism? In the lean, mean Nineties? Roger Trapp finds out how employers are dealing with it

The lean, mean business of the Nineties has no room for the ``slacker'' or even the less-than-fully-committed. Nevertheless, absenteeism is causing sufficient concern in some areas of business for the Industrial Society to launch a video-based package aimed at teaching line managers and supervisors the rudiments of "managing attendance".

The society, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary, carried out a survey late last year that revealed an absenteeism rate of 3.6 per cent - equivalent to every employee missing 8.28 days from work per year. Applying this figure to official statistics showing 21.4 million employees in Britain, it calculates that 177,192,000 working days are lost each year through absenteeism. And the cost of this is £11.2bn a year.

Unauthorised absence (which excludes holidays and other pre-arranged leave) usually divides into sickness, personal/domestic problems, lateness and casual leave. Although most employers accept that it is generally the result of illness, there is a need for managers and supervisors to keep abreast of the issue by tackling absenteeism promptly and fairly. "This will encourage their staff to attend work punctually and regularly and to work together as a team in the knowledge that everyone is pulling their weight," says the booklet accompanying the Wish You Were Here video.

There is a role for human resources departments. They can provide advice and guidance to managers, ensure that staff are treated fairly and consistently throughout the organisation and interpret company policy and procedures as well as legislation. But, the booklet says, the main responsibility lies with the line managers.

The video has a simple story line: a hard-pressed corporate purchasing department and the company that supplies it with electrical products each have an absenteeism problem. As the plot unfolds, the viewer sees how the two cases - one the result of the worker concerned suffering ill-health because of the heavy nature of his job and the other the result of boredom and dissastisfaction - are resolved.

The purchasing department manager - anxious to sack her unreliable subordinate - has to be guided through the legal difficulties by a sympathetic colleague in human resources. At the supplier company, on the other hand, the manager is keen to help his old friend find a role where he can be useful without injuring his health.

For different reasons, neither manager has to take the difficult decision to dismiss the employees concerned. But, as the Industrial Society training package demonstrates, many of their real-life counterparts do.

In the 1980 case of International Sports Company v. Thompson, for instance, it was found that in the last 18 months of her employment Mrs Thompson had been absent for about 25 per cent of the time. The acceptable absence level agreed with the trade union was 8 per cent.

While most of the absences were covered by medical certificates referring to a variety of conditions, she was given a series of warnings. The company doctor said that there was no point in him seeing her since there was no link between the conditions; and as she was not suffering from a long- term chronic illness, he could not give a prognosis on her future state of health.

Her eventual dismissal was found to be fair on appeal. The grounds were that, provided there is a fair review of the employee's attendance record and the reasons for absence, there is an opportunity for the employee to put forward his or her side of the story and appropriate warnings have been given, it is fair to dismiss if the situation does not improve.

Similarly, in the case of Rolls-Royce v Walpole in the same year, Mr Walpole was dismissed after clocking up absence rates of 44 per cent, 55 per cent and 44 per cent in his last three years of employment. Most of the missing time was covered by medical certificates and he was seen by the company doctor in order to discover the causes of his increasing number of absences. He was then twice injured playing rugby and dismissed.

The Employment Appeals Tribunal ruled that such action was fair and coined a phrase now used in most unfair dismissal claims - that it was "within the range of reasonable actions which a reasonable employer could have made". Because there was no underlying health issue, the fact that the employer did not obtain a medical report did not automatically make the dismissal unfair.

However, where there is a serious health issue behind the absence a different approach may be required. The 1977 case of East Lindsey District Council v Daubney involved a surveyor who was off work for several months following a mild stroke. The employer decided that he should be retired on health grounds.

But the industrial tribunal and the Employment Appeals Tribunal ruled that this amounted to unfair dismissal, since discussions and consultations that might have shed fresh light on the problem should have taken place. Additionally, the employee may have wished to obtain his own medical advice, and that might have changed the company's mind.

To help line managers and their superiors avoid these legal minefields, the Industrial Society pack contains checklists in addition to detailed information on Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service guidelines for dealing with the issue. But one cannot help feeling that it is so complex and fraught that the already hard-pushed manager may well be tempted to call in sick.

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