The Senior Management Team is not doing a good enough job of connecting the dots with and for employees. As a result, we have less engaged employees who get less done, so it costs us more to do less.
By Graham Crawford
Published April 17, 2013
Recently, Councillors were updated on employee absenteeism stats and their related costs, all shared in the Employee Attendance Performance Measures Report [PDF] released to Council on March 25, 2013. The Report was discussed at a meeting of Council on March 27, 2013.
Some Councillors asked questions about the report. Chad Collins led the charge, followed by Brad Clark, Sam Merulla, Bernie Morelli and Terry Whitehead. While they acknowledged some progress had been made to reduce the average number of days absent per employee, Councillors pushed for better results, faster.
I think they were right to ask for both. Progress is indeed being made but, as seems too often to be the case, at a glacial pace.
I've selected some of the key areas of focus from the report and I've put together an infographic to help visualize the stats.
Infographic: City of Hamilton 2012 Employee Absenteeism
There are approximately 6300 full time employees at the City of Hamilton. Of those, there are approximately 5,050 employees who are formally "eligible" to take sick days. Of the eligible employees, slightly over 75 percent (3,785+) of them took two or fewer days last year. 25 percent of eligible employees (1260+) took zero sick days.
While not surprisingly fitting nicely into the Pareto Principle of 80/20, I think this stat is worthy of both note and of praise. Basically, it means that over 75 percent of City employees have excellent attendance records.
Absenteeism is costing Hamilton taxpayers well over $12,000,000 per year. Depending on what gets added to that base number, including overtime, replacement workers, etc., that number could be, and is very likely to be, significantly higher.
Obviously, absenteeism is a fact of life. Not only do employees get sick, but so do members of their families. Kids may need to be cared for, etc. So, the goal can never be zero days off, but if 75 percent of your employees can have two or fewer, why couldn't that percentage be 80 percent? Or 85 percent? The implications are significant.
City Manager Chris Murray has set a target of a 10 percent reduction in the average number of days absent per employee over the next two years. In the last year, they have achieved an almost 5 percent reduction.
At the March 27 Council meeting, Murray told councillors:
We've already knocked it down by half a day and I think the way we phrased it was, one day or better, really, is what we're trying to achieve and certainly we're well on our way as it stands right now. And just so everyone here is aware, we have made this a priority. We are training all of our leadership, or just reminding all of our leadership, as to what the Attendance Management Program is meant to do and how best to utilize it. And I do attend every one of those sessions just to make the point that this is something that Council is very serious about, and hence I think, you know, applause, you know, hats off to staff for effort.
You can watch Joey Coleman's livestream of the meeting. Murray's remark is on the second video at around the 2:25:00 mark.
What about the remaining 1265 who represent 25 percent of the total of eligible employees? Well, that's where it gets much less worthy of praise.
This group of employees took 6 or more days off last year. Again, people do get sick or injured. That's why we have sick days, as well as Short Term Disability and Long Term Disability programs. But what level is acceptable? When is high too high? And what are some of the causes of such high numbers?
65 percent of the 10,000 sick days taken in total were taken by 25 percent of the eligible employees. The 6500 sick days this group took cost the City at least $7.5 million. These numbers meant that Hamilton ranked seven out of 12 municipalities with which we share data. Average. Every year. For each of the past four years.
I'm not sure why "middle of the pack", as Chris Murray describes Hamilton's ranking, is acceptable for a city that begins its vision statement with, "To be the best place in Canada to..." The difference between #1 and #7 is many millions of dollars.
The report mentions the number of WSIB claims is up, but that the period of time away from work for each claim is down. More people away more frequently, but for fewer days at a time. But why are more people making WSIB claims? Why are they returning to work sooner? What explains this change?
The report also states:
There is significant variation among various unionized employee groups in the average paid sick days in 2012 with a low of 6.8 days for CUPE 1041 and a high of 18.4 days for ONA Lodges. The average paid sick days for all unionized staff are 11.2 days versus 4.9 days for the non-unionized workforce. Absences rose slightly in the unionized group as a whole while they declined for non-unionized staff. The reasons for the contrast between these groups is likely related to differences in how engaged employees feel with their work, access to flexible work arrangements, differences in the nature of the work and overall job satisfaction.
The authors of the report say being a unionized employee makes people feel less engaged than their non-unionized colleagues. Why would this be the case? Why would the report suggest unionized employees would have lower job satisfaction than their non-unionized colleagues? Why would this explain why they take more sick days?
Is the report concluding that the more disengaged an employee is, the more he or she experiences lower job satisfaction and, as a result, is more likely to avoid being at work?
It's correct, of course. There's not much point in debating this fact of organizational culture. But there's a great deal to be said for understanding why this is the case at the City of Hamilton.
Absenteeism is always a symptom. It's never the problem, even though the City's senior management team seem to be treating it as the problem.
Put simply: more engaged, more satisfied, more supported employees are more productive. They tend to spend less time away from work. They do more when they're at work. Lower absenteeism (less cost) and higher productivity (more done).
This is why it's very important not to confuse attendance with productivity. People can show up because that's the way they're wired, managed, inclined. That does not necessarily mean they're working to their full capacity or potential. Yet, the report makes no mention of this correlation, other than the union/non-union comment.
Another HR report presented to Council about a year ago stated that not quite 50 percent of employees had a formal performance plan in place. You know, the plans that set out some achievable goals for the employee, set in collaboration with his or her immediate manager. Goals that should not only be connected to departmental goals, but also to the higher level organizational goals.
These plans provide focus, opportunities for learning and progress, and a sense of personal achievement. Some of the very things that help increase job satisfaction, which we know directly contributes to reducing levels of absenteeism.
But even a formal performance management process gets sub-optimized when it just mimics existing job descriptions. A really good performance management process really is driven by and connected to higher level organizational goals, regardless of the job description. That's not an easy thing to do, but it is doable. Many organizations have been doing it for decades.
Not only that, but investing the time and effort to state and communicate higher level goals for all employees, and embedding them into the performance management plan, helps to target and achieve results, organization-wide and at all levels.
We have levels of absenteeism that are too high.
We have a percentage use of performance management plans that is too low.
We have a lack of alignment between the work done by front line workers and higher level organizational goals.
And we set mediocre goals to close these gaps.
I, for one, could do with a greater sense of urgency.
Mediocrity is not a goal to which any of us should aspire. Nor should Council or Chris Murray and his Senior Management Team. Average isn't the same as good.
Personally, I don't think even good is good enough for my city. Snail's pace progress is not keeping pace with the economic development progress we're experiencing. The entire city bureaucracy needs to be not only in sync with the economic development progress, it needs to be out in front of it.
The decision to invest in Hamilton - to move to Hamilton, to raise your kids in Hamilton, to start a business in Hamilton, to be an engaged Hamiltonian - all rely to some degree on the quality of services delivered by the City and by the people we entrust to deliver them.
As I said, there is good news to share. But not enough of it. Chris Murray and his Senior Management Team are not doing a good enough job of connecting the dots with and for employees. As a result, we have less engaged employees who get less done, so it costs us more to do less. That is neither desirable nor sustainable.
And that, sadly, is the morale of the story.
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