Part of the problem: management responsibility for absence

Much advice on absence management mentions ‘creating a positive working atmosphere’ – but then skips what this means to focus on the process of absence management – measurement, return to work interviews, restricting sick pay etc. What managers may not have grasped is that attitudes towards absence are created, to a large extent, by managers themselves, argues Karen Drury.

A model created in the 1970s throws an interesting light on culture. According to academics, any work group will form interests and a work identity and also develops a perception of its autonomy – or control – as a result. Management contributes to this view by setting the tone of the workplace, providing a level of trust and also a series of rules.

High trust, high regulation organisations have been labelled as controlled autonomy – workers behave in ways that managers find appropriate, but there are also a lot of rules. The Armed Forces might fit into this category, for although there are a lot of rules, the effectiveness of the organisation as a fighting machine depends on trust.

High trust and low regulation has been called responsible autonomy, and may include skilled workers who self-regulate with few rules to guide them; managers understand that their intervention is not generally needed.

High regulation and low trust is the equivalent to ‘control and command’, where managers watch staff constantly. What this often results in is a backlash from workers, and militancy develops.

Finally, low regulation and low trust creates what is called irresponsible autonomy, where managers don’t set clear guidelines on behaviour, but also do not trust workers to do their job, which results in ad hoc and inconsistent management.

The development of management culture has implications for any sustained management action on absence.

Another model from the mid-80s, on worker perceptions of absence, indicates that trust (how far there is a culture of trust in the organisation, something that might be seen as taking responsibility for work) is still a key element. The other element is ‘salience’ – or how far the culture influences the individual and how strong the group norms are.


Putting these models together, it becomes clear how managers influence the work culture overall, but also, how this contributes to the perception of absence.

In a responsible autonomy culture, with high trust, low regulation and fewer group norms to influence behaviour, workers are guided by their own professionalism about absence – hence why it might be classed as deviant.

In a controlled autonomy culture, with high trust, high regulation and a strong group norm, absence is seen in the context of what’s best for the group – so it is seen as constructive.

In a low trust, high regulation culture with a strong group norm, managers and staff are on opposing sides and this is likely to result in absence that is seen as a ‘right’. Defying management but still keeping within the tight rules, absence may be seen as a method of asserting control.

Finally, in a low trust and regulation culture with fewer group norms, managers may tolerate absence in some employees and not in others with inconsistent application of any policy, hence workers calculate how much they can get away with as individuals.

While putting together these models might be seen as a rather neat trick, taking managers through them and asking them to comment on the kind of culture they believe their organisation espouses has also sparked some uncomfortable reflections, which all the absence policies in the world won’t fix. It’s not about the level of rules and regulations, according to these models – it’s about the level of trust between management and workforce. And this has greater implications for organisations than whether a manager believes an employee is swinging the lead.

Karen Drury is a partner at management and communications consultancy fe3 consulting.

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