Disappearing Act

Randy Mazie
Posted on June 1, 2004

Driver absenteeism can make a transportation manager’s life miserable. When drivers do not come to work, a dark veil is cast over the entire department.

The effect, like a shared recurring bad dream, is felt by transportation staff, students and their families, school personnel and board members. If the problem continues, frustrations mount and spiral into stronger negative reactions. Simply put, all support quickly erodes. Are you getting anxious, itchy or twitchy just reading this?

Absenteeism can also incur high costs, monetarily and emotionally. Drivers with good attendance feel the burden of doubling routes and begin to think, “Why should I come into work on these days?”

Surprise! Some days even you begin to think this way. That’s when you know the problem is really bad.

Some cause for hope
What’s an administrator to do? Do not despair. There is hope. Those sleepless nights can be a thing of the past!

To take that first step out of the nightmare, administrators need some solid ground to stand on. That starts with a clear attendance policy.

The policy should include the following basic components:


  • Expectations of good attendance.


  • Recognition of the need for leave time (both paid and unpaid).


  • A designated amount of paid leave and a method of accrual.


  • Clear understanding of the specific steps that your organization will take in the event an employee exceeds the allotted leave time.

    There are as many potential attendance policies as there are organizations. No single policy is perfect or will work for all organizations and remain the same over time. Things, and people, change. The key is to be clear, so that you have solid ground when trying to rouse from that frenzied and frightening dream state.

    Enforcing the policy
    Now that you have some solid ground to stand on, you need to start walking around, feeling your way around and becoming comfortable with the environment.

    Just having a policy is not enough. It must be enforced. For some, the thought of this can be just as overwhelming as the times when employees don’t show up to work. But don’t let it be! It is not that difficult and will pay great dividends when followed through.

    The first step is to start tracking employee absences. Use whatever computer programs are available to track unauthorized absences that your department may find particularly stressful, such as the Mondays and Fridays before or after holidays.

    Once you have started tracking, review this report about every two weeks. Begin to take action. This can take many different forms, but the basic steps are the same. Meet informally with employees to discuss their absence record with them. This can be very effective, especially if you include authorized leave time.

    Most employees who take off from work don’t realize how much time they have taken off. An informal meeting provides an excellent opportunity to review, in a friendly way, what your board/department’s attendance policy is and what will happen if the employee continues to be absent. (You may be surprised that many employees aren’t aware of the consequences and appreciate being notified.)

    When employees realize that you are tracking absences, bringing it to their attention often has a “halo” effect. Suddenly these employees come to work. Also, word gets out that you are seriously beginning to track absences, which serves as a deterrent for other employees.

    Chronic offenders beware
    If the absences continue, a second meeting should be scheduled and a written warning presented as a result of this meeting. It is important to document that policy is being followed. Include a copy (and any contractual information, if appropriate) of your policy. Discuss the employee assistance program (EAP) with the employee and, if necessary, make a referral to the program. Sometimes it may be appropriate to refer all your employees who have attendance problems to the EAP. Give them every opportunity to straighten out their difficulties. Let employees know that this may be their last warning based on the policy, and you’d hate to see them lose their job.

    {+PAGEBREAK+} Whatever steps you take will need to be tailored to your board or department’s policy and your own situation. It doesn’t matter what intervals you use, what actions you take or when. It does matter that you adhere to a process that will work for you and that you apply it fairly and consistently to all your drivers.

    Most important is to get moving. Start tracking attendance, know what is going on with your employees and let them know that you know.

    If this is adhered to, it will stem much of your attendance problems. But beware! It cannot be done intermittently or for just three months and then be dropped. It takes a concerted effort on a regular basis to achieve the results you desire.

    But what’s next?
    Even though you have implemented a sound action plan that will show remarkable results when conscientiously applied, other actions will further complement this basic program.

    We have addressed employees not coming to work, but we need to strengthen the reasons why employees come to work (some show up for duty religiously in the most adverse of conditions, bless them). This may sound oversimplified but employees generally show up for work because they like their jobs, the people they work with and how they’re appreciated.

    So the question that begs an answer is this: How do we create an environment in which employees like to come to work? Here are some things we have tried over the years that aren’t very difficult, are inexpensive, do not take much time, and are fun to do:

    Employee of the month club — Reward employees who have perfect attendance. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time and doesn’t require much money. Take a picture of the employee and place it on a “wall of fame,” holding a little ceremony in the employee lounge, giving the employee a framed certificate and a letter of appreciation that they can show their family and friends. Let the employee know that a copy will be placed in their personnel files.

    For our annual in-service, we have trophies made. (Believe it or not, we found trophies for $5 a piece that our employees love.) We call each employee up to the stage to recognize them. We also recognize employees who have had perfect attendance all year long.

    There are as many variations on this theme as you care to try. We were also able to have a local restaurant donate a coupon for free appetizers, which we give to our employees. This is greatly appreciated.

    {+PAGEBREAK+} Employee newsletter — Publishing a monthly, bimonthly or quarterly newsletter can be a big morale booster. Be as creative as you like. It can be serious or funny. Let the employees produce it or contribute to it. Have a gossip column, letters to the lovelorn, recipes. I am very proud because our newsletter won a graphics award from a national trade magazine!

    Employee discussion groups — Provide an opportunity for employees to sound off on issues, get updates on what is going on, provide feedback and build a sense of community and belonging. Post minutes from the meeting. Inform employees of the actions that have been taken because of their input. Challenge them to come to meetings and address difficult issues. Challenge your employees to participate in the solutions.

    Employee suggestion box — This is for the shy employee or for the suggestion that may feel too provocative or threatening for an employee to bring up face to face.

    The Monday Morning Club — This has taken several forms over the years. One variation involves having an employee who is having difficulty coming to work on Monday mornings report to me personally on Mondays so they can let me know that they made it in. The employee generally likes the individual attention, which is a motivation to come to work.

    At the Monday Morning Club, we also give out “transportation dollars” to employees who come to work on Friday paydays. These dollars can be turned in after their Monday morning runs for small prizes, generally for their children, such as pencils, combs, barrettes and toy airplanes. All are available from your local dollar store or through donations.

    Appreciation activities — Use the radio on Friday paydays and thank employees for coming into work or helping out. Use the radio several days before a holiday or recess period starts to remind drivers how important it is that all of them come to work the day before and the day after. Let them know that you and the students are depending on them. Let them know how much their efforts are appreciated.

    Write letters of appreciation to those who come to work on critical days. Write letters of concern to those who do not come in and let them know how disappointed you were with their absence.

    Develop a doubling scenario book — Have your routing staff set up some doubling possibilities for each route and notify your drivers that they may be called upon in times of need to help out with these routes. Let them know whom they would be affecting if they were absent on those days. This strategy serves both as a deterrent and a planning tool.

    Survey your drivers — Create a questionnaire designed to allow your drivers to tell you anonymously what kind of improvements they’d like to see at your facility. Ask them what would help improve their attendance. Leave some questions open-ended. Publish the results. Then develop a plan to address any concerns that were raised. Ask for your drivers’ feedback and involvement in implementation.

    Use your employee assistance program — It is important to recognize that many of our drivers have serious problems. Salary is an issue with some drivers holding a second job. Others may have problems with housing, transportation, day care or insurance. Offer them help through your EAP.

    But seriously. . .
    The important thing is to let your employees know that absenteeism is serious business and is being tracked so that constructive actions can be taken to foster good attendance. If you do these things, you’ll not only sleep better at night, you’ll see more of your drivers in the morning.

    Randy Mazie is director of the central-east regional transportation center at Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

  • Related Topics: driver handbook/policies, morale

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