Improving attendance: a case study

Improving attendance

Ensuring that your line managers actively manage their teams’ attendance at work is a critical challenge for every business.

This case study illustrates a typical situation which our team helps solve for many different types of client, regardless of whether they are a manufacturing business or any other type of organisation.

The challenge

The company, which has around 600 employees, suffered from attendance levels and sickness absence levels were causing significant concern to management.

As well as the primary concern that sickness absence was being poorly managed in general, there existed a strong suspicions that not all line managers were correctly reporting staff absence and that, in some departments and particularly at the more remote sites, staff routinely covered up a variety of types of unauthorised absence by their colleagues.

In addition, relatively high numbers of staff were on long-term sick leave with little management, control or review of their absence being undertaken by their line managers or by HR.

The company was conscious that this poor practice appeared to be rife and that significant sums were at stake, both as a result of unauthorised absence and poor management of long-term absence. Consequently both the performance of the company and also its financial well-being were being hampered by this ‘black hole’.


The prospects of the company improving the absence management situation using internal resources were hindered by a range of cultural and operational barriers, including:

  • No company-wide system of reporting and managing sickness absence.
  • No return-to-work interview process or any other incentive for staff to improve their attendance levels
  • Over-generous sick pay, and with the sick pay ‘clock’ returning to zero if the member of staff returned for just a few days after a year’s absence.
  • No confidence in the reliability of the statistics on levels of sickness absence – the management information systems were poor.
  • HR team not feeling very competent or confident in leading on absence management.
  • Line managers were not trained in managing absence, and they had little or no understanding (or acceptance) of absence management being part of their role as a line manager. They didn’t know how to carry out a return-to-work interview and myths abounded about what could and could not be said to staff during those interviews, causing them anxiety about conducting such meetings. In essence: a lack of ownership and a fair amount of fear.
  • Union resistance to any attempts to robustly manage sickness absence.
  • The company’s Capability Process was too long and drawn out – it could take up to a year of following procedure before the dismissal stage might be reached.

What needed to happen?

There was no ‘silver bullet’ which could resolve all of the issues. Fundamental change was required – in terms of procedure, sick pay entitlement, culture, line management responsibility and competence – in order to stem the financial losses being caused by such a poor absence problem.

Both HR staff and the line managers needed to be given robust tools to properly manage absence and then needed to be trained to have the understanding and confidence to deploy those tools when required.

What did Menzies Law do?

Our multi-disciplinary team of barristers, solicitors, HR consultants and L&D specialists worked in partnership with the senior management team of the company to devise a Change Programme, targeting all of the elements of change that were required to take place:

  • Cultural change: moving to an expectation across all levels of management that maximum staff attendance was required at all times and any sickness absences must be actively managed and kept as short as possible, as a matter of course.
  • Contractual change: removal of full sick pay as a contractual right. From now on, it was available under a reviewed Absence Management Policy at the discretion of the company.
  • Policy change: payment of full sick pay was now discretionary and dependent on the employee complying with all the obligations upon him/her within the new Absence Management Policy.
  • Procedural change: the new Absence Management Policy introduced a comprehensive, robust and swift process for actively managing sick leave, ensuring that all sick leave was properly identified on day 1 and subsequently tracked along a process that required regular communication with the sick employee, medical reports and updates and pro-active steps to assist and encourage him/her back to work. For those who were long-term sick, a much swifter conclusion to their employment on the grounds of ill-health termination, was applied. For those with sporadic attendance, a far swifter range of warnings and penalties were imposed.
  • HR practice change: active absence management was now a key priority for the HR team, and the changes in sick pay entitlement, policy and procedure provided them with the tools to deliver a genuine transformation to sick leave levels and sick pay costs.
  • Line management change: the line managers were challenged, training and empowered to understand that active absence management was their personal responsibility and their own performance in this area of their managerial duties was now a key area of accountability for them.

Our specialist employment lawyers and our HR consultant began by reviewing the situation and then planned a change programme timetable.

Our lawyers kicked off with making the necessary changes to staff contracts to remove the contractual right to full sick pay, and devised a contract variation timetable to roll these changes out across the workforce.

Our lawyers and HR consultant then reviewed and substantially re-wrote the company’s existing sickness policy, dramatically reducing sick pay eligibility. Using our decades’ worth of collective experience in this area, we included a range of provisions to make it much more difficult for staff to abuse the sick leave system (such as when staff go off sick with “stress” or co-incidental but unlikely illness when faced with a disciplinary allegation, performance concerns or other workplace situations that they don’t wish to face). Putting in place a range of measures to reduce the “tactical sickie” is a key skill of ours.

Our specialist trade union lawyers supported the company through challenging negotiations with the trade unions to achieve agreement over the required changes.

Our Learning & Development Specialist then put in place a suitable absence management training programme, delivering:

  • high-level coaching and development for senior managers in turning around staff management in the company; and
  • a two-day absence management workshop for all line managers, in the essentials of active management of staff and sick leave. Key elements of these sessions were training the line managers on how to undertake ‘honest conversations’ with their teams about performance and absence, as well as carrying out return-to-work interviews properly and effectively, which were identified and highlighted as critical to the success of the overall plan.

Our HR consultant provided consultancy to the company’s HR team on how to restructure the team to build the resilience and confidence needed, particularly in its approach to robust absence management. It was crucial to ensure that the HR advisers were knowledgeable as to the tools at their disposal, how far they could push things, and that they were motivated and empowered to deliver the required changes.

Our HR consultant also helped the company to make much more effective use of its absence data for the efficient monitoring and managing of staff.

Outcomes for our client

The effect of our various people management interventions was to transform the company’s sick leave levels from very poor to excellent, over the course of a few months.

The trade unions bought into the changes, appreciating the many benefits to all staff, students and the company as a whole that would be delivered.

The HR team now has a fit-for-purpose range of procedural tools for managing sick leave sympathetically yet effectively.

The company now has an accurate picture of staff attendance levels and its level of effectiveness in managing these.

The line managers have (for the most part) lost their fear and avoidance of managing sick leave and now appear to accept that it is a key function of their management responsibilities.

Production has benefited from a much-reduced absence of operatives and overall productivity has risen notably as a result.

And, above all, the large cost of the sick pay budget has shrunk to unprecedented levels, solving a major financial problem for the business.


For more information on how Menzies Law can help your business, please contact

Luke Menzies, Director

0117 325 0921

Improving attendance