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June 29, 2010  |   Comments (6)   |   Post a comment

Why Won’t They Come to Work?

In these tough economic times, most school bus drivers consistently show up for work — but some still don’t. After monetary incentives failed to tackle absenteeism, one district learned that some employees need another kind of support.

by Randy Mazie


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What motivates most employees to come to work every day? And why do some employees never seem to make it, especially on a Friday or Monday?

Is it just that most employees are very conscientious, while others are not? To some degree, this may be true. But for those employees who can’t seem to get to work, something else may be happening behind the scenes.

The thought

In these difficult economic times, when jobs are scarce, we all think that not only would employees come to work every day just to keep their jobs, but most employees would even go the extra mile just to ensure that they stay in front of any potential job contractions. Yet some employees continue to be absent from duty on a regular basis.

If your district is like ours — and most districts these days are in the same boat — you are operating under great budgetary pressures. Facing and/or having already faced cutbacks, you have probably also curtailed the hiring of new drivers. This would mean that any employee that you lose, you are not going to be able to replace — at least not right away.

So what do you do with employees with poor attendance records, especially if firing them means you cannot replace them?

Do you, and can you, motivate this type of employee to come to work regularly?

The experiment

Is money an incentive to get employees to come to work?

Once upon a time, in days well gone by, our South Florida school district had a budget — not unlike many other school districts’ budgets — that was a little more flush than today’s budgets. We were able to convince our school board that an experiment was in order that might have a very positive impact on the district for both employees and students. We wanted to experiment with a very old idea and see if it was true. The old idea was:

Money motivates people.

We decided to put our money “where our people were,” and that meant ultimately into our employees’ pockets. We began what we believed would be an exciting venture.

The experiment was this: Drivers who were present and on time for every reporting shift during an entire pay period would receive a $75 incentive on their following paycheck.

We proposed operating this experiment as a pilot program for four months. We would then compare attendance rates to the same period from the previous year. We were obviously looking to see if monetary incentives would decrease absenteeism.

We hypothesized that a monetary incentive would increase employees’ attendance by 10 percent, and that attendance would also increase in times of typically high absenteeism, such as the days before or after a holiday, pay days, Friday afternoons and Monday mornings.

A financial plan was developed to support this pilot project and allow it to be as budget-neutral as possible. It was projected to be cost–neutral by utilizing fewer substitute drivers to operate the same number of routes, since more regular drivers would be on duty on any given day.

You may have already reacted to this idea in the same manner that our senior staff reacted to this idea, which was to ask, “Why would you pay employees extra to come to work?”

It took a bit of explaining, as you can imagine. However, at the same time we were convincing senior staff, our drivers were complaining that when their co-workers were absent, the burdens of absenteeism fell squarely on their shoulders. They had to double out runs and return to pick up missed students.

Many drivers expressed that they were tired from helping out and that it was unfair to them — especially as they came to work every day and received no extra compensation for their efforts.

Morale was clearly being affected. So, in addition to providing a carrot to those with poor attendance, the incentive became viewed as a reward for those employees who already had good attendance and were steadily helping us out.

A last hurdle had to be overcome with the union. Their initial position was that the program should apply to all their members, which includes custodians, cafeteria workers, maintenance personnel, mailroom employees and the like. They felt it should not be limited to drivers. Ultimately, though, they agreed to a trial program with drivers only.

The results

We ran the program for the four months and tracked attendance. Upon completion of the project, the two calendar periods were analyzed.

The experimental period — the period that included the $75 incentive — showed that, compared with the previous year:

• Attendance had increased by only 1 percent.
• Absenteeism had actually increased on six of the 12 critical days described above.

The program did not achieve the reductions anticipated, and it was discontinued.

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I work for Sant Fe ISD in Santa Fe Texas as a bus driver. This is my 4th year. When you start you get the oldest bus in the fleet. I call them dinosaurs because they have no air conditioning. Then you get bumped up to a higher bus every year. I started in 119 and now im in 142. Now thats almost a cadillac! Air, radio, pa system! The reds and yellow buttons are on the steering wheeel. One of the others drivers was parked next to me last year and he said, Youre going to get one of the big banana busses! He was talking about the beginning of the new year. I told him, Well you know what? I was hired to take peoples kids to school. This is my job. People depend on me to come get their kids. I told him when i filled out the application i told them i was dependable and i showed it . Then he says, well thats a good attitude. There were 2 drivers and one mechanic with perfect attendance last year and im proud to say i was one of them. Knock on wood but so far i havent missed this year.And im in my 60s! I tell my kids that they will never have a sub unless something drastic happens.Last year with perfect attendance you got $150 dollars. But theyve stopped it this year but still hasnt stopped me from striving to get perfect attendance again.

shirley richards    |    Nov 03, 2011 06:19 PM

It seems that your experiment actually proved one thing: money motivates those who understand that their employment is the key to their successes; money does not motivate those who do not make that connection.

John Coxen    |    Dec 15, 2010 04:00 AM

A Better Workplace --- Meridian Group's Newsletter, Number 27, 1-15-04 This newsletter presents real-life management issues and how people addressed them to improve their company's culture. It is sent monthly to subscribers. Respect Makes the Difference: "Employees will leave if they imagine that the grass is greener on the other side. Your grass is greener if it meets people's needs. Perks can't do this, they only touch surface issues. What people really long for is a workplace where they are respected, where they are treated as adults, where they feel appreciated—the kind of place we all would like." ~ The Coming Exodus, by Dave Murphy, 12-20-03, Meridian Group's Newsletter, Number 27, 1-15-04 ... Keep It Simple—Say "Thank You": Fortune magazine, in their annual article, "The 100 Best Companies to Work For" (January 12th, 2004), rated J. M. Smucker No. 1. "What's really impressive is a secret recipe: a culture and management style as straightforward and likable as strawberry jam. . . . "Employees don't get any razzle-dazzle perks . . ." says CEO Paul Smucker: "Listen with your full attention, look for the good in others, have a sense of humor, and say thank you for a job well done. . . "Plant supervisors have been known to serve celebratory barbecues after hitting new records; managers routinely thank teams with lunches and gift certificates." Voluntary turnover is 3%. ... Everyone a Master and Commander: As adults we like to be in charge of our world, whether at home or at work. Everyone likes to be involved in decisions that affect them. Involvement of the people closest to the issues makes for better decisions and shows people you appreciate them and their experience. Most people feel undervalued and unappreciated at work. Create a workplace where people experience mastery and command of their task and you stand out clearly in the crowd. The Bottom Line: If your people like working for you—if they can meet their personal needs

James Kraemer    |    Jul 18, 2010 12:04 AM

Great insight into a building problem. I have found that those employees that always miss really don't want to work. They have made one excuse after the other as to why they are absent. I feel they don't even get it as to how important it is to have them there and there is no concern for others that they put the burden on. They also feel that unemployment pays just as well should they be fired.

s.thompson    |    Jul 01, 2010 06:24 AM

Money was not the reason I worked as a school bus driver. I enjoyed working with the children and my peers. Yes money can be a big help, but when it is not safe to drive I DID NOT. My leadership did not see it that way. They Only wanted some to drive the bus. The pay was ok, but I could have made more money Flipping burgers. Just keep this in mind.

R Davis    |    Jun 30, 2010 09:48 AM

Randy- Great article. Since many private contractors and school districts provide such incentives, I just assumed they were effective. I wonder how many have done the analysis that you described. Here's a thought: Maybe, especially in an area like yours with such a high cost of living, the $75 incentive was simply not enough to change behavior. I'm not sure how long your drivers' pay period was, but other incentive programs I have seen are often quarterly, with correspondingly higher dollar amounts. Patterns of attendance, or non-attendance, and one's general work ethic are fairly well ingrained and hard to change. Thanks again for your innovation and work on this and other areas of student transportation.

Charlie Hood    |    Jun 30, 2010 09:47 AM

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