Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Wal-Mart adopts automated absenteeism system

Wal-Mart adopts automated absenteeism system
Chris Silva
Employee Benefit News • February 2007

Having grown weary of seeing two employees running themselves ragged picking up the slack for absent workers, Wal-Mart has instituted a new policy requiring those who are sick or late to work to call an 800 number. Workers using the automated system to call in sick are tagged with an "unauthorized" absence; anyone who logs seven of those within six months automatically will be fired.

Any Wal-Mart worker that forgoes the new system and accrues three no-call/no-show absences in a six-month period also will be fired. The discount-chain giant also is encouraging anyone needing more than three consecutive days away from work to file for an unpaid leave of absence or time off under the Family Medical Leave Act.

Wal-Mart's shift in policy comes at a time when absenteeism is on the rise and many employers - particularly in retail and similar transient industries - have reached the point of exasperation. According to the 16th annual CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey, unscheduled absenteeism can cost large companies an estimated $850,000 per year. CCH, a human resources consulting group based in Riverwoods, Ill., determined a national absenteeism rate of 2.5% in 2006, up from 2.3% in 2005.

"We did this to formalize our existing attendance policy, to ensure greater consistency and minimize subjectivity," says Wal-Mart spokesman John Simley. The program was initially tested in a few select Wal-Mart stores in the spring of 2006, Simley says, and the results were favorable. "The goal there was to improve the work environment and the shopping experience, and the tests have shown that the new attendance policy does exactly that. So it does work."

The new policy has also been well received by the majority of company employees and associates, Simley adds. "It's actually been very smooth, and the people who appreciate it the most are the associates who are there, at work, and don't have to stretch themselves to cover for someone who's absent."

A new approach

According to CCH, one-third of all absences were unscheduled in 2006, with personal illness accounting for only a third of the reported reasons (35%). Other reasons included family issues (24%, up from 21% in 2005), personal needs (18%), stress/burnout (12%) and entitlement mentality (11%, down from 14% in 2005).

The majority of workers have found work-life to be popular absenteeism deterrents, CCH data show. Employers, however, have generally attempted to quell absenteeism by implementing disciplinary actions and yearly reviews, CCH found.

Wal-Mart's call-in system represents a new approach to fighting absenteeism. Workers navigate an automated system to ensure they're routed to the right store. The call generates a confirmation number, which is electronically filed and stored.

The system also tracks tardiness. Wal-Mart gives employees a 10-minute grace period before they're marked for an incomplete shift, says Simley. The discount chain developed the system internally; there's no third-party administrator.

Analysts and consultants familiar with absenteeism believe an automated approach like Wal-Mart's is worthy of consideration.

"I think this is a recognition that these old approaches just aren't working anymore," comments Tom Klett, senior consultant with Watson Wyatt. "We've got to take a new approach."

Remarks Richard Chaifetz, chairman and CEO of EAP provider ComPsych: "Employers have gotten smarter about absence management programs. As the technology has become more advanced and companies have become more tech-savvy, they've seen cost savings in automating or outsourcing administrative tasks like tracking absences."

An automated system has proved more reliable than phoning in for the store manager, who sometimes will miss the call, says Simley.

The new policy also leaves little doubt about the consequences.

"The idea here is to make this consistent for everybody and make them aware of their obligations," Simley says. "We can't make exceptions and enforce the policy differently for people."

That a high-profile corporation like Wal-Mart has revamped its absenteeism system is noteworthy, says Klett. "It looks like they have centralized the system, which is important. The fact that a company of this size has acted on this makes people understand that absenteeism is a bigger issue than they've realized. There's no pat solution out there. There's a lot of latitude for creativity, and I think we're starting to see it." - C.S.

(c) 2007 Employee Benefit News and SourceMedia, Inc. All rights reserved.


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