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Absenteeism: the cost and how to deal with it


If your employees are not showing up to work, it can be frustrating.

Chronic absenteeism is the habitual pattern of frequent, unplanned and unauthorized absences from work, as well as any failure to report for scheduled work, or to stay at work when scheduled. Chronic absenteeism represents a breach of the implicit social contract between employee and employer - the employee is expected to be available and able to work when scheduled and that the employer pays the employee in exchange for work.

Absenteeism can cost an organization greatly, but the costs are often not well understood and easily dismissed.

To help you understand, we have compiled a definitive guide to dealing with the problem so you can set expectations, make decisions that are compliant with employment regulations and get staff at work!

Table of Contents

  1. Costs of Absenteeism
  2. Types of absences
    1. Culpable absences
    2. Non-culpable absences
  3. When to meet with your employee
  4. What to do for medical or disability related absenteeism
    1. Requests for medical information
    2. Duty to accommodate
    3. Duty to inquire
  5. When to terminate
    1. Job Abandonment
  6. Strategies for managing employee absences
  7. Conclusion


Cost of Absenteeism

The costs of absenteeism that are easiest to figure out are things like overtime costs and replacement worker costs. What many employers overlook, however, are the indirect costs such as lost productivity, work delays, decreased morale, dealing with fatigued staff who have to frequently cover for absent workers, as well as the drain on time for managers who have to deal with both discipline and finding staff to cover.

Controlling absenteeism starts with assessing how big the problem is, so that the proper controls can be put in place.

Types of absences

In order to assess, you will need to review your attendance records and determine the number of culpable vs. non-culpable absences for each of your employees.

Be sure to track culpable and non-culpable absences separately; you must differentiate between the two in order to determine a correct response as well as mitigate the risk for a discrimination claim.

Culpable Absences

When an employee calls in sick to spend the day golfing (or other activity reserved for the healthy), this is referred to as a culpable absence. The employee was scheduled and able to work their shift but chose not to.

Managers will likely notice absences occurring just before or after holidays; repeated absences on the same day of the week (every Monday or Friday) or on pay days; absences during known busy times; or absences after negative experiences such as receiving an unsatisfactory performance review, being denied a requested day off, or after an incident such as an argument with a coworker.

One occurrence of this may not be that significant, but more than three occurrences would equate to a pattern. The appropriate response to culpable absenteeism is progressive discipline.

Non-Culpable Absences

A non-culpable absence is one where the employee is absent for reasons outside their control such as an illness or injury. Non-culpable absenteeism must be handled very carefully as there are Human Rights considerations.

Discipline is not the focus here; non-culpable absenteeism must be monitored and managed in cooperation with the employee and medical professionals.

When to meet with your employee

If your employee’s absenteeism exceeds the organization’s standard, then it is time to have a meeting.

This is your opportunity to find out if the employee can provide a reason for their absences, so that you, as the employer, can identify if those absences were culpable or non-culpable. You should also take this time to clarify that the employee is aware of the policy and reporting requirements. You will want to explain to the employee what impact the absences are having on the workplace, their coworkers, and their job.

Ask what support you can provide to help the employee attend work, and if you have an Employee Assistance Program, provide information on it. Clearly state your expectation regarding attendance and plan future attendance goals with timelines. Alternatively, you may need to discuss a request for medical documentation and accommodation if the employee divulges a medical disability that may affect their ability to come to work in the future.

What to do for medical or disability related absenteeism

When the employee’s absenteeism is for medical reasons, there are some things to consider and steps to take.

Requests for medical information

An organization may need medical information from the employee’s medical practitioner in order to assess whether their absences are related to a disability.

The employer must first obtain consent from the employee in order to do this. The amount of medical information requested should be in line with the level of the accommodation requested – the employer should only collect as much medical information that is reasonably necessary to accomplish the purpose.

It is important to note the that an employer should not be privy to an employee’s diagnosis, only basic information such as the general nature of the employee’s illness, date of most recent medical practitioner’s visit, if a treatment plan is being followed (but not the details of the plan) and when the employee is likely to return to work.

In order to fulfill this duty, employers can request additional medical information including the details of the employee’s physical restrictions and limitations that may affect their work, and the expected duration of those restrictions and limitations. If the absences are related to a disability, and the employee has requested an accommodation, then the employer has a duty to accommodate to the point of undue hardship.

Duty to accommodate

The employer’s duty to accommodate is the process the employer takes to remove barriers that limit opportunities based on a protected characteristic as per the Human Rights Act. In relation to absenteeism, that protected characteristic is usually a physical or mental disability. Both the employer and the employee have responsibilities in the accommodation process.

The employer’s responsibility is to treat requests for accommodation seriously and assess each request individually to determine possible accommodations without causing undue hardship. Employers should consult with medical practitioners who can assist in identifying employee needs for their specific set of circumstances.

Employers must keep the details of all accommodation requests confidential. When an accommodation plan is in place, the employer must monitor the situation and be prepared to adjust the plan if it no longer meets the needs of the employee.

The employee’s responsibilities in the accommodation process include:

  • providing the information required to medically substantiate their restrictions or limitations;
  • making suggestions for accommodations; and
  • trying out employer suggested ideas even if they aren’t the employee’s preferred solution.

It is important to remember that a reasonable accommodation is not necessarily a perfect solution to all parties.

Duty to inquire

Generally, the duty to accommodate is not triggered until an employee communicates that they have an accommodation need. But if an employer observes behaviour that would lead them to believe that the employee has a medical condition or disability requiring accommodation, they have the duty to inquire as per the Human Rights Code. Failure to make a reasonable inquiry would be seen as a breach of the duty to accommodate.

When to terminate

An organization may be faced with the decision to terminate an employee that just cannot seem to attend work… just know that it can be a very slippery slope.

When making a termination decision regarding culpable absenteeism, employers should be prepared to show that:

  • no accommodation was requested or required;
  • that the attendance policy and expectations are reasonable;
  • that there has been a documented history of absenteeism that has been consistently addressed;
  • progressive discipline measures (coaching, verbal and written warnings) have not worked; and
  • what the impact was to the employer.

If tested in court, lawyers and other entities will look at the seriousness of the absenteeism, taking into account:

  • the employer’s work environment and the nature of employment;
  • if and/or when the employee has been warned in the past for similar conduct; the employee’s length of service and job description;
  • how the employer has tolerated similar conduct in the past;
  • the reason for the absences; and
  • the employee’s honesty and intentions regarding the absences.

Terminating an employee for excessive non-culpable absenteeism is extremely risky, given the liability to the organization for a potential discrimination complaint. Only if there is clear medical information indicating that there is no reasonable prospect of regular attendance from the employee and that the employer can prove undue hardship pertaining to accommodation.

Job Abandonment

So, what happens if an employee just stops coming into work altogether? If there has been a number of consecutive shifts that your employee has not called in nor attended work, you may be able to assume they have abandoned their job.

Job Abandonment is the failure to report to work for consecutive days without notice and the employee cannot be reached, otherwise called a no-call no-show. Job abandonment is considered a voluntary termination – quitting without telling the employer.

An employer must be justified in terminating an employee for abandonment and it is often tested in court. The employer has a high threshold that they must meet in order to prove that the employee abandoned their job. A resignation must be clear and unequivocal.

Terminating the employment relationship with an absent employee is not impossible, but it definitely puts an organization at risk. Anything less than an employee’s objective statements or actions showing an obvious desire to leave and not return will be construed against the employer. As well, there are Human Rights obligations in relation to accommodations that must be considered, and Employment Standards laws do not specify a time after which an absence becomes abandonment. Therefore, each situation must be handled very carefully on a case-by-case basis.

If your organization is faced with instances of job abandonment, we encourage you to reach out to a professional HR Consultant or Employment Lawyer for guidance.

Strategies for Managing Employee Absences

Check your Attendance Policy.

If you have HR support, contact them for any questions you may have to ensure that you are applying it correctly and consistently. If you do not have HR support, it would be wise to reach out to a professional, especially if you do not have a policy in place!  A good policy sets attendance expectations, explains the follow-up process, outlines the disciplinary process that will be followed, distinguishes between culpable or non-culpable absences and is consistent with human rights legislation.

Educate your supervisors and staff on the policy, reporting and discipline procedures.

Be sure that your people know what is expected of them and what steps will be taken.

Be consistent.

Employers must apply their workplace rules consistently. If an organization has excused this same behavior in the past, then it would be viewed as condoning it.

Keep thorough records.

Document everything!  This will help with transparency as well as your consistency when handling attendance issues.

Address attendance issues promptly.

Do not wait! Waiting only causes problems later on, such as poor morale, burnout and possibly increased absenteeism. Inaction on the part of the employer is construed as condoning the poor behaviour.

Discipline appropriately.

If a pattern of culpable absenteeism has been established, then discipline should follow. Remember to gauge the level of discipline to the specific offence. Following progressive discipline is best practice.

But don’t rush to discipline until you have the facts.

Be sure you have all of the relevant information first. Don’t act on anything out of anger—this could decrease morale and land an organization in litigation.

Consider reward and recognition strategies.

An attendance program should not simply be punitive. Try rewarding efforts by offering a certificate, a gift card, free lunch, an extended lunch break or small prize to those with excellent attendance (or improved attendance). Whatever you choose to do should be something you can sustain over time.


In these pressing times where it is difficult to find workers, it may feel like employers have their hands tied when dealing with absenteeism. But in the long run, managing absenteeism could save your organization a lot – financial costs, morale, productivity, the list goes on.

Legacy Bowes offers a course called Managing Chronic Absenteeism  as a part of our Certificate in Indigenous HR Essentials program that can provide you with a solid foundation on how to handle absenteeism.

If you are unsure where to begin or how to proceed, contact our Human Resources experts for advice, or with assistance in reviewing or writing your Absence policy.

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