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Absenteeism and employee counselling

When we place the problem of industrial absenteeism against the fabric of the prevalent labour laws, one way of dealing with it is to interpret the existing labour legislation, or if it is the public sector, the Administrative Regulations and the Financial Regulations (the AR and the FR). In that event steps could be taken to terminate the employee’s services, provided taking such a step is sufficiently justified as per the prevalent regulations in terms of the attendance records, be it Factory Legislation or the AR and the FR.


Teamwork, vital for office efficiency

What we have to realize is that termination is one thing but losing say a skilled operator is another. Then the question has to be asked whether it is in fact the ideal course of action? In terms of legal thinking, we could think of it as misconduct, and it follows that misconduct once duly proved must be followed by appropriate punitive action.

However what we must also appreciate is, that the organization also loses a trained worker. Therefore, it is loss in terms of the training imparted and the investment the company made in training him. It could on the other hand be argued, why he should be retained, or better said 'carried’ incurring all the overheads too in terms of this worker who cripples the work of that unit and thereby affects the smooth functioning of the organization.

It must however be borne in mind, that once an employee’s services are terminated, a replacement has to be recruited and there will be waiting time until the new recruit completes his training. All this is cost incurred. Another is the social factor - a family has lost the earnings of its breadwinner.

Labour laws

This being the case, both in terms of the organization primarily and the society at large, it is best to try and correct the inappropriate behaviour of this bad attendance worker. Actually, there is no single course of action which serves as a panacea for the ills of industrial absenteeism. We must adopt an integrated approach after a close examination as it exists in each particular organization and also the labour laws applicant to them,

While remedial action has to be taken in respect of the current situation in that work set-up-preventive action is ideally the best. Even in the case of remedial action for this already developed untenable situation, a combination of remedial action and preventive action becomes necessary from a long term point of view.

From the research literature I have studied and as an outcome of my research too, the findings were that a reprimanding system for absenteeism does not work. Below is a quotation from Edwin Flippo’s textbook on Personnel Management, with reference to absenteeism:-

“Reinforcement through punishment is to be de-emphasized or avoided because of its stimulation of subordinate anger, hostility, aggression and rebellion. It has also been observed that behaviour that has been conditioned through punishment not only tends to have relatively short-term effects but encourages innovative behaviour to thwart and frustrate the manager e.g. providing the absolute minimum required, producing only when supervised, malicious obedience etc.’

My experience has been that a reprimanding system should be applied only to chronic absentees, and that too, if counselling has not worked i.e. only as a last resort. It is interesting to note that Andersson (2002),who studied two factories in the FTZ also advocates counselling for absenteeism.

She states thus in her Thesis:

‘The writer agrees with Vaid (1967) and Abeywickrama (1976, 1991) that Counselling could resolve absenteeism, especially for chronic cases. Counselling is a way of showing attention to the workers as well as to make them identify and solve their own problems.’

Now, before proceeding to discuss the possible solutions for the problem of absenteeism, it is imperative that some time be spent on the causes of absenteeism and the patterns of absenteeism, as the possible remedial measures depend on causes and patterns.

The variables reflecting the causes of absenteeism, broadly speaking, fall into four categories. Below are these four types and examples of the variables which fall under each category:-

Job and Plant factors:- Egs. The recruitment system. Casual labour in-take. Use of labour supplied by labour contractors. Overtime work. Fatigue and Stress at work.

Reprimanding system for absenteeism. Skills’ level. Work pressures.

Laxity in the approval of ex-post facto leave etc.

Economic factors;- Wages. Indebtedness. Family size. Number of Dependents. Living conditions-lodgings etc.

Socio-cultural factors- Location. Age Sex-wise distribution. Educational level. Seasonal work demands of the community. marital problems spouse's place of residences. Parent’s place of residence. Peer influence etc.

Psychologicak Factors- Interest in the work. Emotional problems. Work Values..Attendance rewards etc

Equally relevant as causes are patterns of absenteeism. It has been found that there are absence-prone persons in any organization. Numerous studies in the West and in India have shown that it is 10 percent of the workers who account for 45 and 50 percent of the absenteeism.

Thus there is a core group of bad absentees and that group represents the chronic absentees. Vaid (1967) is one of the researchers who has highlighted this phenomenon. In the research study I did too, that was my finding - that it was in the range of 8.7 percent = 12.6 percent of the chronic absentees, who accounted for 59 percent of the absenteeism. This is the core absentee group in any organization.

In my study, chronic absentees were taken to be the workers who had taken more than three spells of one day or more uauthorised leave in the previous two years or workers who had taken more than six periods of sick leave in each of the two years under review.

Use Counselling

In this way, the causes of absenteeism and the pattern of absenteeism have to be analysed before we attempt to introduce ways and means of reducing absenteeism. This is the back drop to the suggestion that we use Counselling as a tool to minimize absenteeism.

This brings us to the question of what Counselling really is, but before I come to that, I wish to outline just a few measures industrial companies currently use in Sri Lanka to minimize absenteeism.

These were my findings after a quick survey I did on the telephone after I decided to write this article. Some of these are recruiting the factory workers from the area the factory is located in, announcing at the beginning of the leave year that they could encash some of their unused leave, introduction of production incentives, attendance bonuses, and even raffle draws periodically for the good attendance workers with no late attendance also, and the prizes,which are payments in cash, ranges from Rs 2,000 to Rs 20,000 just to mention a few of them.

There is another point I wish to make. As I see it, the use of Counselling as an HRM tool seems especially relevant in today’s context of business growth where large concerns are outsourcing some of the HR functions such as Recruitment and Training. With this system catching on, HR profaessionals will have to expand their employee counselling services.

We are more and more productivity conscious in order to double-up on export growth, are increasing machine efficiency norms and working with highly automated and technologically advanced modern machinery where fatigue and stress levels are high. So, naturally absenteeism can get worse.

Therefore counselling of workers by managers, supervisors and at other heirarchical levels, becomes essential. This is the reason why even in FTZ factories, the use of this tool has been catching on. Management always prefer to retain their trained labour such as operators in this current business environment rather than having to train new people.

To be continued

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