Employee Attendance - Supervisor Briefing

Author: Jessica Sussman

This Supervisor Briefing examines the law and best practices for managing employee attendance in the workplace. It covers the following topics:

  1. Understanding the Employer's Attendance Policy
  2. Establishing Clear Attendance Expectations
  3. Understanding Leave Laws
  4. Managing Leave Requests
  5. Managing Legitimate Absences
  6. Personal Business
  7. Managing Unplanned Absences
  8. Documenting Attendance
  9. Enforcing Attendance Rules
  10. Addressing Attendance Issues Early
  11. The Attendance Policy and Disciplinary Action
  12. Attendance as Part of Performance Evaluation
  13. Test Yourself

The Supervisor Briefing may be used in conjunction with this PowerPoint presentation for training purposes. The PowerPoint presentation can be customized and adapted to fit your organization's needs.

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Understanding the Employer's Attendance Policy

An employer generally establishes attendance guidelines to preserve productivity, set expectations for employee behavior, maintain positive morale, and provide documentation should disciplinary action be required. The supervisor should thoroughly understand the employer's attendance requirements and specifically note any distinctions in these requirements that might be based on the seniority level of employees (for example, paid time off based on length of service). If working from home is not addressed in the employer's attendance policy, the supervisor should determine whether employees will be permitted to work from home and whether they must seek approval to do so.

Establishing Clear Attendance Expectations

Many attendance problems can be avoided when employees have a clear understanding of the employer's expectations, including procedures for arranging for both short-term and long-term time off. The supervisor should inform all existing employees and new hires of these expectations. It is a best practice to focus on attendance as critical to the employer's successful operation as well as the valuable role each employee plays in the daily functioning of the employer's operations.

During orientation, the supervisor should:

  • Inform new hires of the employer's policies and notice requirements for both paid and unpaid leave;
  • Provide each new employee with a written copy of the attendance policy and review the policy verbally with them to avoid any future confusion concerning attendance procedures;
  • Ask each employee to acknowledge in writing that he or she understands the policy and agrees to comply with its provisions;
  • Place copy of this acknowledgment in each employee's personnel file.

Understanding Leave Laws

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) are three federal laws that address leave for employees. (The state and local community may also have additional, similar laws concerning leave.) Generally speaking, these laws protect the eligible employee who must take leave. The supervisor needs to understand the provisions of these laws and how they apply to employees. The supervisor should consult HR if presented with an absence that may be covered by a leave law.

Managing Leave Requests

The supervisor should be sure employees understand leave procedures. He or she should inform employees of call-in procedures, including to whom the notice or request should be made and when the request for leave should be made.


  • It is a best practice to require employees to contact their direct supervisor in the event of an absence so that the supervisor can reorganize work schedules to accommodate for the absence.
  • The supervisor should also review with employees the procedures for requesting extended leave, including to whom the request should be made and how far in advance the request should be made. All leave requests should be made in writing. Employees need to understand who within the organization has the ability to grant leave.
  • Consistency is important is granting leave requests. If one employee learns another employee has been granted leave for the same reason he or she was denied, that employee may allege discrimination.

Managing Legitimate Absences

Although the supervisor should apply attendance policies uniformly, he or she must be careful not to penalize employees for legitimate absences covered by the ADA, the FMLA, USERRA and other similar federal, state and local laws. In most cases, such absences cannot be used as the basis for disciplinary action, a negative performance review or compensation decisions. If an employee is out of work for a prolonged period of time as a result of a medical illness or condition, the supervisor may request documentation. The supervisor together with the employer or HR should then make an individualized assessment whether the absence was caused by a condition or situation that is protected under the law. The supervisor should keep medical documentation in a separate, confidential file.

The supervisor should also recognize that the attendance policy may need to be modified as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. The employer is required to engage in an interactive process and may need to provide a reasonable accommodation to employees willing to return to work after an absence or illness covered by the ADA, FMLA or other applicable laws. A supervisor plays a critical role by engaging in an interactive discussion with the employee concerning what type of accommodation the employee may need in order to return to work.

Personal Business

Employees have lives outside of the workplace, and from time to time unavoidable and unexpected absences arise. In an effort to foster positive employee relations, the supervisor should attempt to accommodate such requests for time off within reason. However, the supervisor must treat all employee requests consistently and fairly.


If an employee consistently arrives late to work, or regularly calls in sick (such as before or after holidays, on Fridays or on Mondays), the supervisor should try to determine the cause of the issue. The employee may not be skipping work for pleasure; he or she may have a problem that can be addressed with the supervisor's help. The supervisor's goal should be to foster open and honest communication with employees at all times. If employees feel comfortable communicating what they need from their supervisor, they are more likely to have their needs satisfied and have a positive experience at work.

If the reasons for absences are the result of workplace problems, such as harassment, problems with a co-worker, or an employee's inability to perform job-related tasks, the supervisor can address them by following the employer's procedures relating to the issue. As always, the supervisor should document any problems expressed by the employee and any action taken as a result.

Managing Unplanned Absences

Perhaps the most challenging attendance issue to manage effectively concerns when employees fail to appear for work without prior warning (unplanned absences). Unplanned absences may overburden other employees and leave the supervisor scrambling to find others to get work done. This may lead to employee resentment and low morale. The supervisor should emphasize to employees who take unplanned absences both the burden this places on co-workers and urge employees to avoid doing so as much as possible. However, in seeking to manage employees who do not appear for work, a supervisor should always consider whether the absence is legitimate and protected by the FMLA, ADA or other state and local leave laws.

To manage employees who take unplanned absences, the supervisor should:

  • Conduct a return-to-work-interview after an employee has been out of work for more than a few days. Doing so will allow the supervisor to reaffirm the employer's commitment to controlling absenteeism and allow the supervisor to confirm the employee is ready to return to work. The interview should occur as promptly as possible upon the employee's return to work.
  • Inform the employee how the absence has impacted the department by highlighting how productivity suffered during the absence. In order to demonstrate the adverse effect the absence had on the department, the supervisor may wish to share how the employee's work was handled by co-workers.
  • Inform the employee about the current status of any of outstanding assignments.

Documenting Attendance

Maintaining accurate attendance records is critical to properly implementing attendance policies. The supervisor may devise and maintain his or her own recordkeeping system or use a software program to track employee attendance. Regardless of the method used, attendance logs should include:

  • The use of leave,
  • Documentation of the leave, and
  • Any warnings or notices issued based on attendance issues.

The supervisor may want to review the logs and records of attendance periodically to look for any regular absentee patterns.

Enforcing Attendance Rules Consistently

As with any other employment law issue, consistent enforcement is critical to avoiding potential claims of discrimination and feelings of favoritism that could lead to decreased employee morale. Employee morale may also be negatively affected if some employees are consistently required to take on the work of other employees who regularly abuse the attendance system. Disciplining employees who exhibit attendance issues shows employees taking on the extra work that management is making an effort to alleviate that burden.

Although enforcing attendance rules consistently and uniformly is important, it is critical that the supervisor not discipline employees for legitimate absences covered by the ADA, FMLA, USERRA or other state and local leave laws.

Addressing Attendance Issues Early

When a supervisor recognizes that an employee is consistently tardy or regularly leaves early, he or she should use informal measures prior to implementing progressive discipline. For example, the supervisor may remind the employee of the attendance policy and the reasons the employer has the policy and clarify any misunderstandings about the policy. The supervisor should reiterate that each employee's work is critical to the daily functioning of the organization and that other employees depend on the employee to execute his or her job duties. If appropriate, the supervisor may want to set a date for evaluating the employee's attendance again.

Generally, a supervisor may provide at least two verbal reminders to an employee before taking disciplinary action for attendance issues. He or she should document any and all conversations with employees related to attendance. Any written document created indicating attendance issues should be shared with the employee before being placed in their personnel file. The supervisor should help the employee set short-term goals to improve attendance.

Attendance issues should be addressed on a one-on-one basis. However, if a supervisor recognizes a trend in the team (a number of team members exhibiting attendance issues), he or she may elect to address the issue as a team. The supervisor should meet with the team, reiterate expectations and explain how the problem affects the larger scale and how the group absentee issue is negatively impacting their goals and that of the organization as other teams depend on them.

The Attendance Policy and Disciplinary Action

Disciplinary action should never come as a surprise to an employee. Employees should be aware of the rules and understand what actions will violate the employer's policies. Employees who have persistent attendance issues should be informed if their attendance does not improve there will be consequences and what those consequences will be. Once an employee is informed of the consequences of not correcting the behavior the supervisor should follow through with such consequences if the behavior goes unchanged. Failure to follow through suggests to the employee and others that the supervisor does not take attendance issues seriously. In disciplining employees for violation of the employer's attendance policy, the supervisor must avoid disciplining employees for legitimate and protected absences covered by the FMLA, ADA, USERRA or other similar state and local leave laws.

Attendance as Part of Performance Evaluation

Performance evaluation primarily focuses on the skills, aptitudes and accomplishments. Attendance, however, is a critical part of most jobs that must be performed at the employer's place of business. For this reason, the supervisor should always include an attendance component (dependability and reliability) in the performance evaluation.

Test Yourself

  1. When should a supervisor inform a new employee of the employer's attendance policy?
    1. During the interview process.
    2. Once the employee is hired.
    3. After the employee has completed their first month of work.
    4. After the employee's first absence.
  2. Who should employees be advised to call when unable to attend work?
    1. Anyone at the company.
    2. Their direct supervisor.
    3. A co-worker in their department.
    4. An HR manager.
  3. When is the best time for the supervisor to address attendance issues with employees?
    1. When a supervisor recognizes an employee is consistently tardy or regularly leaves early.
    2. The first time the employee calls out sick
    3. After the employee has used up their allotted days off.
    4. When other employees complain about the employees repeated absence.
  4. A supervisor should not penalize an employee for which of the following attendance issues?
    1. Absences under the FMLA.
    2. When the employee failed to notify his/her supervisor that he or she would be absent.
    3. An extended leave the employee took without completing the proper documentation.
    4. An employee who habitually leaves work early.


  1. b. The supervisor should clearly inform all new hires of the employer's attendance expectations immediately upon being hired. He or she should inform new hires of the employer's policies and notice requirements for both paid and unpaid leave. The supervisor should also provide each new employee with a written copy of the attendance policy and review the policy verbally to avoid any confusion. To advise employees of the attendance expectations during the interview process may be too early. To advise employees of the attendance policy after their first month of work or after their first absence is too late.
  2. b. Employees should be instructed to contact their direct supervisor when they will be absent at work. Doing so will allow the supervisor to carefully monitor the employees attendance and efficiently distribute the employee's assignments as needed, causing the least disruption to the department. Only in situations in which the employee is unable to reach or get a message to his or her direct supervisor should the employee resort to reaching out to others at the company.
  3. a. The supervisor should address an attendance issue as soon as he or she recognizes a pattern of absences or tardiness. Addressing such issues before they escalate will avoid greater disruption in the workplace. The supervisor should begin by using informal measures, such as reminding the employee of the company's attendance policies and the disruption the absence causes to co-workers. It is not necessary to an address an attendance issue with an employee the first time he or she calls in sick since this may not be a common occurrence. However, the supervisor should not wait until the employee has used up all of his or her allotted days or until co-workers complain about repeated absences to address the issue,
  4. a. The employer should not penalize employees for legitimate absences that could be protected by the FMLA, ADA, USERRA or state and local laws permitting employees to take legitimate absences. The law generally prohibits covered absences from being used as a basis for disciplinary action. An employer may be able to penalize or discipline an employee who habitually leaves work early, who takes extended leave without completing the proper documentation, or fails to notify his or her supervisor when he or she will be absent.