3 rules of thumb for a successful absentee meeting

Reducing avoidable absences begins with an effective absenteeism policy. Absentee meetings are an essential part of this. What do you need to pay attention to during these meetings?

Absentee meetings are not surveillance checks and are certainly not held to accuse the absent employee. Rather, their purpose is to care for employees and to ensure a positive return to work for everyone as soon as this is possible.

Effective meetings help you as a manager, HR officer or branch manager to discover the underlying reasons for absenteeism at the individual level, but also within departments or in the entire organisation. Furthermore, clear procedures for reporting sick leave raises the threshold for staying away from work, and can therefore reduce unnecessary absences.

A meeting for every phase

Absentee meetings are useful at different moments and for different types of absenteeism.

  • Before an employee reports sick: keep your finger on the pulse and talk to any employees that are acting differently than normal, for example if they are taking leave more often, their productivity is dropping or they seem to be distracted.
  • When an employee reports sick: during the first meeting, follow up the practical aspects, estimate how long the sick leave will last and make it clear that the employee is important at work.
  • During the absence: follow how the employee’s health situation is developing to avoid them becoming alienated from work. This is particularly important in the event of a long-term absence and will encourage the employee’s return to work.
  • When the employee returns to work: expose possible connections between work and the absence (e.g. job content or relationships on the work floor), make sure that it is easy for the employee to resume their tasks and make agreements to avoid any further absences.

Tips for effective meetings

No two absentee meetings are the same. The absent employee, the point at which the meeting is held, the length of the absence (long, short, frequent or sporadic) and a host of other factors all have an influence. Nevertheless, there are three rules of thumb for all types of meetings.

1. Listen in an open and non-judgemental manner

Give the employee as much opportunity as possible to tell their story without prompting. Take the time to listen carefully: deeper-lying problems are often hidden between the lines.

You should not let any frustrations show in your tone of voice, even if you suspect that the employee is taking unnecessary sick leave. It is also a good idea to express interest in the employee’s health situation when they return to work.

2. Search together for causes and solutions

Ask the right open questions. As an employer you are not allowed to inquire about the nature and cause of the actual sickness. Therefore, approach things from a broader angle: ask about working conditions, the atmosphere at work, job content, etc. This may reveal structural difficulties in the workplace, for example if several people say that the work pressure is too high.

Then look for solutions together. These solutions may be individual, such as adapting an employee’s package of tasks, but they may also be collective. By providing options for some employees, you may also help other colleagues who are facing similar challenges but have not yet reported sick. Job rotation, ergonomic changes and training courses can all help to prevent absenteeism.

3. Make clear agreements

The effectiveness of absentee meetings stands or falls with this third rule of thumb. If you do not establish any agreements or if you forget to communicate them, you run the risk that the meeting will not have any impact on the behaviour or perception of the employee in question.

This applies to all sort of absenteeism. Short, one-off absences primarily require practical measures. 

  • Who will follow up the current state of affairs?
  • When will the employee return?
  • Is a follow-up meeting necessary?

Also inform colleagues and the personnel department of any agreements that have been made.

In the event of longer or more frequent periods of absence, work together to integrate the solutions you have come up with into a clear action plan. Be sure to make SMART agreements, i.e. agreements that are Specific, Measureable, Acceptable, Realistic and Time-bound. Make sure that the employee has understood the agreements properly to avoid misunderstandings at a later stage.

Read all the blogposts on absenteeism.

Discover the weak spots in your absenteeism policy

Do you have a clear picture of sickness absence in your organisation? Are you aware of weak spots and do you know what should be done to tackle them? The online Absence Compass has a series of focused questions that reveals issues that require priority attention.