The bell-shaped curve of absenteeism

Stefani Yorges
Tags: talent management

Do you remember viewing a bell-shaped curve in your college math or statistics classes? The corresponding discussion probably addressed many things in life that follow this pattern – with a small number falling in the lower “tail”, a large number falling in the middle (average) and another small number landing in the upper “tail.”

The same holds true for absenteeism problems in organizations. If you were to look closely at your records, you would probably find a small percentage of employees with perfect attendance, a large group with the occasional absence and another small number (usually 10 to 15 percent) with a significant absenteeism problem costing your company a significant amount of money.

Should all these groups be treated the same? Obviously not. Unfortunately, that is what many organizations do.

How can we design attendance programs that account for these differences? First, recognize that these three categories exist: the “Rule Benders”, the “Occasional Offenders” and the “Perfect Attenders”. Then, begin to take a targeted approach at dealing with employees in each group.

The ‘Rule Benders’

A study was recently conducted by researchers at West Chester University of Pennsylvania with more than 800 employees in four different manufacturing plants. This study found that employees in the group with the highest level of voluntary (i.e., incidental) absenteeism also had the following characteristics:

  • They were the most dissatisfied with the job they were doing
  • They were the least conscientious and most impulsive in personality
  • They held the most liberal views about attendance and work ethic
  • They had demonstrated attendance problems in the past
  • They had the most health problems at the present time
  • They reported a significant use of alcohol and drugs

The characteristics of this group (representing about 12 percent of the study sample) were significantly different than employees with more moderate levels of absenteeism.

This small group of employees should be considered to have an absenteeism problem and would require closer supervision. The few employees who are irresponsible should be handled individually and firmly.

First, there must be strict enforcement of a formal and standardized attendance policy. This will immediately reduce the amount of unnecessary absence abuse. Establish your standard for what constitutes excessive absenteeism – more than four voluntary absences in 12 months? More than two voluntary absences in a five-week period? Pattern-related absences throughout the year?

Second, specify how employees are to notify the company when they are not coming in to work. Identify the role of the supervisor with responsibility for recording an absence. Implement return-to-work interviews. Recent national surveys indicate that this is a very effective tool for managing short-term absence. The return-to-work discussion enables the supervisor to welcome the employee back and check that the employee is well enough to return, while demonstrating management’s commitment to controlling absenteeism. The fact that an established procedure is in place to investigate and discuss each absence may, on its own, deter non-attendance for disingenuous reasons.

Third, disciplinary procedures should be established where absence is considered to be above an acceptable level. Initially, an informal counseling session might suffice. If the problem continues, a formal review and verbal warning can be issued, followed by a second formal review and written warning, if necessary. Where these steps do not resolve the problem, a temporary suspension from work or termination of employment may be required.

Finally, given the substantial number of studies documenting that certain personality traits can predict work performance, your company can also begin to target such traits as conscientiousness and impulsivity in the hiring process. Decades of research have proved certain personality tests to be reliable and valid, and many have been developed specifically for use in clerical, industrial, service and manufacturing industries. These measures have been found to reduce absenteeism, lateness, on-the-job substance abuse, turnover and theft by identifying such high-risk individuals before they are hired.

The use of personal history data (called “biodata”) in selecting employees is increasingly popular as well. Research has shown that behavior tends to be consistent and that past behavior is predictive of future performance. Simply add one or two items to your application or interview procedures that can address prior absenteeism or other problem behaviors. Early identification of individuals with an unreliable history can eliminate them from your applicant pool and result in a more dependable workforce.

The ‘Occasional Offenders’

This group does not have an attendance problem as each individual is absent only a few days each year. However, because the group is large, the costs can still add up quickly. According to the most recent CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey, while absenteeism rates have stayed fairly stable over the past few years, the average cost per employee has dramatically risen. With a few simple steps, you can stabilize this skyrocketing expense.

The tendency for most absence control programs is to start with the assumption that all employees would rather stay home than be at work. Such a mentality can be self-defeating for the overwhelming majority of workers who derive a sense of pride and achievement from their work. You should treat this group of employees as responsible adults. They understand reasonable rules and do not want to be threatened into compliance.

A certain level of absenteeism is to be expected, as employees may have to be absent from work as a result of illness. In the majority of cases, employees are acting responsibly by staying at home to recover instead of coming to work and either passing on their illness to other workers (recently termed “presenteeism”), or returning to work too early and getting worse. Employees occasionally have personal circumstances that also require them to take time off work. Your approach to this group of employees should be less punitive than for the “Rule Benders” and more proactive (e.g., improving health and reducing work-life conflict). The objective in this case is to help employees to be present at work.

In an attempt to reduce the levels of employee stress, sickness and subsequent absenteeism, employers can improve the health and well-being of their employees through occupational health services, health promotion activities, and in some cases, employee assistance programs (EAPs). Many popular features of wellness programs include: stress workshops, free flu vaccines, blood pressure and cholesterol monitoring, weight loss programs, smoking cessation courses, company-arranged discounts at local gyms and healthy eating options in the company cafeteria. A New Jersey pharmaceutical company implemented a wellness program and saw a 40 percent decrease in hypertension and high blood pressure among employees, a 20 percent reduction in alcohol abuse, and a 16 percent reduction in illness. The savings have kept their health-care costs stable for the past five years while other companies saw double-digit increases.

The U.S. workforce now includes employees at many different life stages with very different needs. A wide variety of activities compete for an employee’s time – their work, leisure activities, family obligations and household responsibilities. With the increased number of dual-income and single-parent households, other demands on an employee’s time (such as school attendance, child care or medical appointments) are more difficult to balance with their employment obligations. A study by Mercer Human Resource Consulting found that employees with high levels of work-life conflict missed more than twice as many days as those with low conflict. Additionally, as the U.S. population ages, a growing number of employees find themselves caring for an elderly or sick parent. A recent study by Metropolitan Life Insurance Company found that more than 80 percent of workers caring for an elderly relative had to make adjustments to their work schedules, such as leaving early, taking time off in the middle of the day or even quitting their jobs.

Much has been written about flexible working arrangements and their impact on absenteeism. The CCH Unscheduled Absence survey indicated that offering flexible working arrangements was ranked as one of the most effective absence management policies currently operating. It is argued that if employees have flexibility in their working arrangements, they are better able to reconcile personal, family and work responsibilities. As an added benefit, these approaches are usually inexpensive to implement.

A related option that provides increased flexibility for workers involves a “Comp Time” policy. This type of system can be a good answer for scheduling doctor’s appointments or attending a child’s school play. If an employee has a personal appointment (or some situation that can’t be handled after work), the employee arranges to take off a small portion of the day, typically one to four hours only. The time is made up within a certain period, usually the same week.

Another alternative is a paid-time-off (PTO) program. Unlike traditional time-off programs which are separated into sick days and vacation days, PTOs lump all days off into a single flexible category that employees can use for anything. Since PTOs allow employees to use time off for any reason, they can schedule absence in advance and use only the amount of time needed. Traditional sick leave policies that allow absence only for illness may put an employee in the position of having to conjure up a cold to get the time they really need for taking a child to an appointment. Some companies further boost the effectiveness of PTOs with reward programs. Employees are offered cash or gift certificates at the end of the year for up to three unused days off. Another element that can minimize unscheduled absence requires that scheduled time off is deducted at a 75 percent rate (i.e., only six hours for every eight taken) while unscheduled time is deducted at 100 percent (i.e., eight hours for every eight taken).

The ‘Perfect Attenders’

You may be surprised to find that your workforce includes a small group of employees who never miss a day of work, sometimes for years! When employees are consistent in their attendance, some recognition of their dedication is warranted.

You might consider rewarding employees who have an excellent attendance record with a monetary bonus. However, this may not always be the best course of action as: 1) the bonus may encourage employees with a minor illness to come to work and spread it to others, 2) if an employee takes one day off early in the year then there is no incentive to avoid further time off for the rest of the year, and 3) the employees who gain the bonuses are usually the ones who would have attended work whether a bonus was offered or not.

You do want to create awareness that the company is concerned about absenteeism and want to recognize those with an excellent record. Praising them in front of their colleagues, offering a small prize, holding a small celebration in their honor at the end of the year, or including attendance data as part of a promotion decision can all be inexpensive ways to accomplish this.


With the increased expenses associated with absenteeism in organizations, it is imperative that managers find more effective tools to address problems where they exist. It is critical to differentiate among your employees and target only those with excessive absence for tighter control and punitive measures. Occasional absence should be tolerated, but can be kept to a minimum with flexible scheduling options, wellness programs and “comp time” policies. Employees with no absences should be recognized and rewarded for their service.

About the author

Stefani Yorges received her Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology in 1996 from Purdue University. She has been a professor in the graduate program at West Chester University in Pennsylvania for the past 11 years. Her research, teaching and consulting interests are in organizational behavior – particularly in the areas of absenteeism, turnover and withdrawal behaviors. For more information, she can be reached at

New Call-to-action

About the Author