TechRepublic member erzulie_d is a manager with a quality assurance and control unit in Parsippany, NJ. He has a subordinate who is highly competent but who is often out of the office for personal reasons. He doesn’t want to create bigger problems by addressing the attendance issue with this subordinate but does want her attendance to improve.

Inconsistent attendance by staff members can be a serious problem for new managers. Although it may not seem like a big deal initially, a subordinate who shows up late for work, or doesn’t show up at all, can compromise the morale and productivity of the entire team. Here’s my advice for handling IT pros who have attendance problems.

Don’t ignore the issue
If the subordinate is a competent worker, as in erzulie_d’s case, the natural reaction may be to hold off on doing anything and wait to see whether the situation improves. But most seasoned managers would agree that this approach rarely works. And when you do finally do something about the problem, it has usually become an even bigger headache.

If you ever believe that an issue with an employee may eventually result in formal disciplinary action, it is important to touch base with your organization’s personnel or human resources department. Most departments have a labor-relations representative who can brief you on the organization’s policies and procedures related to employee activities. Having said that, there are still ways you can address the subordinate’s attendance problems in a proactive and positive manner.

Establish expectations for conduct and performance
The best way to deal with an attendance problem is to create a work environment for your group or team where expectations for conduct and performance are clearly established. Subordinates will often drift toward unproductive behaviors if they are operating in a vacuum. If attendance is an important issue for you, address it up front with your staff.

Check out your own behavior
It is also essential for managers to be introspective about their own behavior to ensure that it is not compromising efforts to manage. As the leader of the group, you’re in a position to reinforce good work conduct by demonstrating the behaviors you are trying to establish.

Involve the subordinate in the solution
When approaching a subordinate about a work issue such as attendance, you want to do several things:

  • Present the issue of absenteeism in the context of how it affects the group. The subordinate is more likely to respond in a productive manner if the issue is presented as a team issue.
  • It is important for subordinates to acknowledge the impact their behavior is having on the team. It is difficult to change behavior if the offending subordinate is unable to understand or accept the negative way that behavior affects others.
  • Once the behavior is acknowledged, it is possible to discuss solutions with subordinates. Subordinate will often suggest a solution to the problem, which increases their investment in the process.
  • Develop a plan with the employee that highlights behavior changes that will address the absenteeism. For example, the plan can state that subordinates will give higher priority to being on time and will always call within one hour of normal arrival time if they are going to be late. A plan that addresses improvements in attendance in a broad, murky manner will probably not result in the desired change in behavior. It is important to document specific actions that the subordinate needs to take to comply with the plan.

Occasionally, it may become clear that a subordinate is unable to improve attendance due to personal issues. This is particularly true with working mothers and those who care for ill or disabled loved ones. If you believe that the employee can be an effective contributor even with attendance limitations, you may want to formally acknowledge those limitations and develop an agreement that satisfies the needs of both employee and management. You should only create agreements such as this if the arrangements do not overly compromise the team’s morale and performance.

An example
To illustrate these points, consider the following scenario. The manager of an IT unit in a midsize organization is faced with a dilemma. A subordinate in his unit is a bright, energetic person who demonstrates excellent technical skills. The only problem is that she often arrives late to work and rarely, if ever, calls to let people know her whereabouts.

Other members of the unit notice her absence and occasionally comment to the manager about how unfair it is that she is allowed that kind of flexibility. The manager approaches his human resources representative to see what his options are with the subordinate. He receives information about the organization’s policies and procedures on employee discipline and some advice on how to document conversations he has with the subordinate.

However, the representative encourages the manager to try to work out the problem in a more informal manner before turning to the formal proceedings. The manager meets with his subordinate and indicates that it’s important to address her tardiness in the mornings. He points out the negative impact that her absence is having on the work unit. The subordinate responds that her babysitter is often late with the result that she is often late arriving to work.

The manager acknowledges how difficult this situation is but also reiterates how disruptive her absence is to the work environment. After more discussion, the subordinate indicates that she understands that her behavior is having a negative impact on her work unit and promises to arrive on time in the future. She also agrees to seek out the assistance of neighbors or family members to stay with her child until the babysitter arrives. The manager offers to help her identify alternatives to using the babysitter, such as daycare services that might provide discounts to the organization’s employees.

It is too early to determine if the subordinate’s behavior will improve based on the results of this discussion. But it was a successful meeting because the manager was able to point out the negative impact her absence had on the work unit, show compassion and empathy for her problems, and structure an intervention that both parties could work with.

Final thoughts
As a manager, you need to address issues that may negatively affect the team or work unit. Although the fear of losing a good employee may inhibit you from confronting a negative behavior such as erratic attendance, problems seldom go away and usually become worse if nothing is done. It is generally best to confront subordinates by pointing out the impact of the behavior on the team’s ability to succeed, empathizing with their situation, and seeking their participation and buy-in on finding a solution to the problem.

If you’d like to learn more about dealing with subordinates, I recommend The New Supervisor’s Survival Manual by William A. Salmon or Supervising Technical and Professional People by Martin Broadwell and Ruth Sizemore House.