Trends & Features

This time it’s personnel

Employers need to ensure they are running a tight ship in order for their company to achieve the best in profitability and acclaim. John Bensalhia looks at what to do when people problems threaten to rock the boat

Do business owners get a good night’s sleep? If their business is doing well, you might think that it’s all plain sailing. Good turnover. Good profits. Everything’s hunky dory.

Well, think again. There’s an awful lot for the average business owner to fret about. The economy, although beginning to calm down after the instability of 2009, is still yet to recover. The tax return would fill any average Joe with dread. And then there are the little problems that could snowball into a big issue.

These problems, however, can be divided into two distinct categories. There are the outside-influenced potential problems. These are the disasters over which the business owner has no real control, such as fires, floods and theft. I will be dealing with these issues in a separate article, but for now, I will concentrate on the people-based problems.

Jean-Paul Sartre once commented that “Hell is other people” – and this mantra is especially true for the business owner who is trying to run a viable company. Employees, nine times out of 10, do the job to the best of their ability – but what of the small minority that pose potential problems, either deliberately or through no fault of their own?

One such problem is absenteeism. Skiving off may be the prerogative of schoolchildren, but there are still those who try and take the odd sneaky day off work. However, the aftermath of the recession has made for some interesting findings when discussing this thorny issue.

In the summer of 2009 the UK Chartered Institute for Personnel Development issued an annual survey on absence management. According to its report, the average annual level of absence dropped from 8.0 days per employee in 2008 to 7.4 days per employee in 2009.

The survey also noted the effects that the recession had on absenteeism. Over 40 per cent of employers said that the recession “increased the focus of their organisation on reducing absence levels and costs”. Twenty-one per cent of employers noted that there were more employees turning up to work while ill (illnesses such as sickness, flu and colds were the most common cause of absenteeism), while a further 20 per cent of employers noted a growth in mental health and anxiety problems among the workforce in the year running up to the survey.

So what are the main causes of absenteeism, and how can they be dealt with? In the first instance, that of genuine illness or an accident. Taking a day off from work can be a double-edged sword. The employee that calls in sick can arguably lower productivity, but on the other hand, what if he or she comes into work with an infectious bug and passes it onto other employees?

That means more people are prone to the bug, meaning higher levels of absenteeism. Many companies these days ask for a doctor’s letter if the employee is off for longer than a two-day period. At least this way this is proof that the illness is genuine. In the absence of the employee, it is up to the employer to share out the duties among the remaining employees as effectively as possible. Make allowances for their capabilities and the fact that the business is one man or woman down, and if necessary relay that to any customers who have issues with slower or delayed service.

Of course, among women, a common factor that employees face is that of pregnancy. Most employers will be up to speed with the necessary laws relating to pregnancy and the workplace. Changes in April 2007 and late 2008 do, however, mean that both employer and employee need to pay close attention to the updated laws. Any rights relating to pregnant women in the workplace can be found on the DirectGov website ( and also the baby’s charity, Tommy’s (

Employers also need to be aware of health and safety issues for pregnant women. Assessments need to be conducted on long working hours, stress, exposure to chemicals, exposure to potential violence, and manual handling. Companies need to comply with all these requirements and remove any potential hazards. If this isn’t possible, then the employee may be suspended with full pay until the issues have been resolved.

Another cause of absenteeism is the fulfilment of work and family commitments. Employers have seen some employees take days off (authorised or not) in order to look after their children. Not only are people taking time off work to look after their children, they are also taking time off work to look after their elderly parents. As people live longer these days, the amount of care they need in their twilight years has increased.

Employers need to recognise this and make allowances for any unforeseen circumstances that may arise in employees’ personal circumstances. They should allow a certain – but not excessive – amount of time for employees to attend to the needs of their families.

Some sort of compromise should be reached – for example, if the business is experiencing a quiet spell, then it’s not unreasonable for the employee to be allowed a couple of extra hours off. If the business is chiefly internet-based, then this will allow employees to occasionally work from home, if required.

Family bereavement needs to be dealt with tactfully by the employer. Have a word with the employee to discuss the best course of action. Some people find that returning to work sooner is a good way of getting back to a normal life. If that’s the case, you will still need to monitor that employee’s behaviour to make sure they are coping with the workload.

If the employee is taking extended leave, this is acceptable – indeed, employers are required by law to give unpaid leave to deal with an emergency situation or the death of a dependent. However, employees who have been affected by bereavement need to reach an agreement over whether they will still get paid for the period in which they are absent.

While these two instances are not the employee’s faults, the third instance of absenteeism is. This occurs when an employee is not happy in their job, for whatever reason. It may be that the employee is under a great deal of stress, or perhaps there is bullying in the workplace. Maybe that extra-long commute has got too much. This leads to the individual feeling demotivated and demoralised, and so a ‘sickie’ may be a temporary break.

Problem is, the employer is left to cost the count of the worker’s deliberate absence. Not only can this cause hold-ups in order delivery or customer service, the employer will need to find replacement staff. This can cause extra cost (temporary staff wages) and also uncertainty in future planning. Therefore, at the first sign of any dissent in the ranks, the employer needs to act – and act fast.

Talk to the individual and discuss any issues they might have with their work. If bullying or intimidation is the problem, find those responsible and bring them to book – either with a disciplinary warning or dismissal. In the case of the commute, try and reach a compromise with the employee. If you can, be flexible with working hours – agree, for example, that the employee can take a shorter lunch break, but go home earlier.

When it comes to stress, find a way for the employee to carry on producing the best results without overworking them. Allocate a greater share of the workload among all employees without putting too much pressure on. Understanding management will inevitably yield better results and happier staff.

People issues are just one side of potential problems that employers face. The next article will detail how they should cope with outside influences such as fire, flooding, and how they should ensure that all health and safety regulations are met.

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