How to Navigate the Service Industry’s #1 Problem

You hired the right people, your scheduled is optimized, the supplies are all stocked, the day is running ideally with the exception of the staff members that have either called in sick or have not shown up for their shift. Unplanned absenteeism is a plague for any manager who works in the service industry.


out of office
When I was a manager I excelled at what I could influence. I optimized hiring, including great work force planners for scheduling and inventory. I did my best to create a culture where people were empowered and paid fairly with bonuses for top performers. My hands seemed to be tied on how to consistently get my team to work on time as planned. I did better than average but absenteeism was my number one issue as a manager of non-exempt team members.

There are lessons in every absence I’ve encountered that lead me to believe leaders can influence absenteeism and work with team members to minimize the issue and the impact.


My lessons are different than what a team member may have focused on. These are 5 insights that can help you beat the odds on absenteeism.


  1. As the boss or leader absenteeism was in my control. I first needed to recognize that I could do more than I was doing to create a place people wanted to come and work. When I took ownership I was back in the driver’s seat in creating a solution.
  2. Absenteeism is personal to each team member and to tackle things at their root we need to treat each person as an individual. Personal meant talking to each team member and asking questions to understand the reasons for the employee’s absences. I discovered trends that I could address but more often I found there were individual changes I could accommodate that solved an issue that was often temporary in nature.
  3. I rallied the entire team to the issue, not just my supervisors and leaders. I communicated the impact of absenteeism to the team on the business goals and what it meant when other team members had to cover. Creating awareness was my job and being clear about impact and expectations brought the team together in creating a solution.
  4. Historical data helped identify what was really a problem and versus the emotional reaction to any given day’s staffing issue. We analyzed absenteeism by day of week, by time of year and by individual over a year’s time at minimum. I met with other service leaders in different industries to compare notes and we found commonalities.
    • Employees had life issues with intense impacts that averaged 3 months and got caught in tight attendance policies.
    • Employees had chronic issues that no policy would cover and needed to be handled individually. Their stats tainted the rest of the groups performance.
    • Employees needed individual adjustments and often times were hesitant to request them or our practices for request left them at the bottom of the pile.
    • Our scheduling was prioritizing our needs over their requests creating a no win solution of almost guaranteed absenteeism.
  5. Treating everyone fairly created mediocrity. The fair standards we established to make everyone happy didn’t make everyone happy. What we moved to was being just, honorable and equitable as a solution to fair. We focused on a more individual approach. The people who got upset were those who couldn’t live up to their individual commitments.
To create your solution first remember you are the leader and have influence and control over the outcome. Your solution can be a little gray because one size isn’t going to fit all. By allowing yourself some wiggle room you can begin to address things individually. Focus on being just, honorable and equitable as a way of being fair to your team. Above all communicate your needs and expectations to your team so they are part of creating the solution.


How have you handled absenteeism? What is your best success secret? I would love to hear, please share a comment.