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Honesty is the best policy when a family issue requires an employee to take time off, employers say.

When an employer fails to address family needs, however, employees may feel they have to hide the real situation, often masking a family issue by taking a sick day, said Amy Richman, a senior research consultant for WFD, a Boston-based resource and referral service.

"(Employees) call in sick and use their sick time for their children," said Ms. Richman. "It's a lot worse to have somebody who has to deceive their employer. . . . It's about developing an atmosphere of trust and support."

In a recent survey by CCH Inc., a Riverwoods, Ill.-based tax and business law information provider, the category of "family issues" was the most frequently cited reason for unscheduled absences -- unseating "personal illness" for the first time in the survey's history. The survey was first conducted in 1995.

"Traditional sick-leave plans do not address the real issues that are driving employee absenteeism," Paul Gibson, an attorney and human resources analyst with CCH, said in a statement about the survey. "There's little value in outdated plans that cost organizations more, are not flexible enough for today's workplace and fail to meet even the basic needs of the workers."

Time off to handle personal needs "is no longer a taboo thing to ask," said Chris Kjeldsen, vp of community and workplace programs for health care products manufacturer Johnson & Johnson.

"We really encourage employees to talk about the need to take off for these reasons. . . .We've brought about a cultural change," he said.

In 1989, the New Brunswick, N.J.-based Johnson & Johnson instituted a Family Care Absence policy, in which personal time off is granted by an employee's immediate supervisor, Mr. Kjeldsen said.

This type of absence usually is paid leave to take care of situations such as providing emergency care for a family member or time to attend a parent/teacher conference.

"Historically, Johnson & Johnson has never had a set number of sick days or personal days," Mr. Kjeldsen said. "We're silent on that."

As part of a work/family program, ice cream and yogurt maker Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc. allows sick days to be used for the employee or his or her dependents, said Carol Hickman, senior manager of benefits and human resources information systems. South Burlington, Vt.-based Ben & Jerry's asks employees to give advance notice for things requiring use of a personal day, such as car repairs.

Without this prior notice, some industries can suffer from unscheduled absences, Ms. Hickman said. "If you're in retail or manufacturing, it does have an impact on the business."

At Chicago-based Montgomery Ward & Co. Inc., employees can take up to four personal days for any absences other than vacation time, which eliminates the need to disguise personal issues, said Jill Chapman, benefits director.

"If (the absence) is for a sick child, we understand that," she said. "If it's a personal day, (the employee) can use it however they want."

But Ms. Chapman agrees that an unplanned absence can leave the retail staff with an extra burden, especially during storewide sales or around the holidays.

"There are fewer people on the floor when someone calls in sick," she said. "It's harder for the people remaining. It complicates everything."

To curb problems with unscheduled absences, some companies have gone to a paid time-off system in which vacation days, sick days and personal days are pooled.

"By doing that, the company could actually be giving the employee fewer days," said WFD's Ms. Richman, because not everyone uses the maximum number of the traditional three types of days off.

According to the CCH's survey of 401 human resource professionals working for U.S. companies, 25% of companies offer such a system.

"With PTO, employees have more ownership of their time off and how it's used," CCH's Mr. Gibson said in a statement. "This, in turn, allows them to schedule all but the most unforeseeable absences."

Palo Alto, Calif.-based Hewlett Packard Co. moved to a PTO system in 1982. Employee response to the program has been very positive, and the electronics and computer technology company has not experienced abuse of the policy, said a company spokeswoman.

"If somebody wants to go to a child's recital, they don't have to make something up," she said. "It seemed to make sense."

In CCH's survey, the presence of work/life benefits reduced the number of unplanned absences. Flexible scheduling, onsite child care and emergency child care were among the benefits scored as most effective.

When a company has backup child care, employees don't need to be absent as often, said Eleanor Nelson, CEO of Workplace Connections Inc., a resource and referral service in Waltham, Mass. "It's a real return on investment, because that person is at work."

Because of a demand for increased productivity, absenteeism is a problem for most employers in every industry, said Donna Klein, vp-workforce effectiveness for Marriott International Inc., a lodging and management contract service provider based in Washington.

Marriott instituted a PTO system in 1997. "It's designed to go after the unplanned absences," she said, and allows the company to be more proactive with scheduling.

But it is part of the 10-year-old work/life program that tells the Marriott success story. The company's resource and referral service, called the Associate Resource Line, boasts a 4-to-1 return on investment in terms of cost avoidance, Ms. Klein said, noting that the return rate is calculated solely on absenteeism, tardiness and turnover. Employees can receive legal aid, housing information and even pet care advice through this service.

A spokesman for Stamford, Conn.-based Xerox Corp. said that by offering employees a flexible work schedule, it experienced a dramatic reduction in absenteeism.

"When employees were given some flexibility and some say in how the job got done, absenteeism dropped by 30%," according to the spokesman. "Rather than making rigid policies about flexibility, the company has tried to create this culture and measure it over time."

Beyond just offering work/life benefits, employers should make sure managers are monitoring absenteeism, said Marsha Venturi, consulting actuary for Buck Consultants Inc. in Secaucus, N.J.

She added that employers do not always have good information about why an employee is absent. It's "an important area for employers to have their fingers on the pulse," Ms. Venturi said. "It's a grass-roots kind of business sense."

Copies of the 1998 CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey are available for $25, plus shipping, by calling 800-435-8878 and asking for offer number 06288001