Where Have All the Guards Gone
AT MY CONTRACT security firm in northern Mexico, absenteeism was becoming a problem and was costing my company money. While some causes of employee absences are unavoidable, such as long-term sicknesses, funerals, and maternity leave, other absences are based solely on an employee’s decision not to come to work. The company had a hunch that it might be suffering from the latter. Interested in knowing whether that was true and what could be done about it, I decided to collaborate with some coworkers to conduct a study.
My company, which has provided security guards in five locations across eastern Mexico for 15 years, employs about 400 guards. To make the study easier to conduct, I decided to focus on one of the sites, which employs 200 guards.
To begin the research, two supervisors, an HR assistant, and I formed a team. The team decided to study two main issues within the company: why security guards voluntarily miss their jobs and what internal policies and culture were contributing to this absenteeism. The study would consist of two parts: a written questionnaire and one-on-one interviews.
The questionnaire consisted of 16 closed questions and one open question. One of the questions inquired why, over the course of the last three months, the respondent had missed work. The survey listed 17 possible causes for the respondent to choose from. The next question asked respondents why others missed work. The same 17 causes were listed for this question.
The other questions were designed to learn about the organizational reactions to absenteeism. Questions included: When you are absent, who asks you why you were out? How often are you asked? Have you received a reprimand because of absences? If so, how often and from whom? Have you received any advice on how to avoid being absent in the future? If so, from whom?
The only open question asked was: If you were a company supervisor, what would you do to reduce the rate of guard absenteeism?
The surveys were distributed by supervisors during the night shift, because the work load is usually lighter at night, giving guards more time to answer. Of the 85 surveys distributed, 82 were completed. The estimated time for answering the inquiry was 20 minutes.
In addition to the written questionnaire, the team conducted a series of interviews with some of the organization’s managers, supervisors, and human resource employees. The goal of these interviews was to learn more about the company’s internal absenteeism policies; whether employees were aware of the policies; and whether anyone was held responsible for excessive absenteeism. In addition, general and first-line managers were asked to present a list of possible causes for voluntary absenteeism. Fifteen employees were interviewed. They included the general manager, the operations manager, roving supervisors, radio station operators, and members of the human resources staff.
To the question about the reasons why the respondents had missed work during the previous three months, most answered that a short illness was the cause. This was followed by family issues, personal time, holidays, lack of money for commuting, oversleeping, exhaustion because of work, laziness, and attending parties or social events.
The results obtained by asking why coworkers missed work were similar. Most said that short illnesses and personal time were the cause. These causes were followed by lack of money for commuting, family issues, oversleeping, holidays, exhaustion because of work, family responsibilities, attending parties or social events, bad weather, problems with management, and job hunting.
Managers had different ideas about why guards were voluntarily absent. The managers indicated that the most common reason was attending parties or social events or family issues. The second most cited reasons were laziness and personal time. These reasons were followed by problems with management, lack of money for commuting, going out of town, short illnesses, exhaustion from overwork, and hangovers.
The differences in what guards said and what management believed to be the case provided useful insight. The finding that most managers believed that guards were absent because they were partying was significant.
The survey also revealed a lack of supervisory oversight. For example, while supervisors demonstrated some interest in why guards were absent 70 percent of the time, a reprimand was issued only 59 percent of the time. Of those reprimands, 54 percent were given by direct supervisors and 43 percent by some other manager. In 46 percent of cases, the guards surveyed said that no one cared when they were absent. Of those guards surveyed, only 58 percent had been told by a supervisor that missing work was undesirable.
Several good ideas were derived from the last question of the survey regarding what management could to do to decrease the absenteeism rate. Guards suggested that managers give recognition to the people who have low absenteeism, conduct additional training to reduce work stress, and speak directly to absentees to make them conscious about the harm they create to themselves, their peers, clients, and the company.
The interview results were analyzed and placed into six categories: internal policy, consciousness, criteria, delegation, response, and communication.
Internal policy. In general, the interviews revealed that there was no written policy about how to treat absenteeism. However, the interviews revealed that there was agreement in how to handle it. For instance, everyone interviewed said that someone who misses work more than three times in a 30-day period should be fired. They said that guards who frequently missed work were not chosen for overtime assignments. And frequent absentees were assigned to low-risk posts where the potential harm to the client would be minor.
Consciousness. All of those interviewed were conscious of the importance of having all guard positions filled during every shift. It was clear that managers understood the dangers of absenteeism. They noted that, in addition to the cost of bringing in overtime guards, absences damage the company’s image with the client and also cause discomfort among the guard force.
Criteria. The criteria for firing those with excessive absences appeared to be uniformly conceived, as noted earlier, but they were not uniformly enforced. The problem, as the interviews revealed, was that some managers cut some guards slack. In certain cases, it appeared that though a guard missed work frequently, he was not punished.
Delegation. The interviews made it clear that guards who were reprimanded for missing work should have received that reprimand from a direct supervisor. All the interviewees agreed that this responsibility lay primarily with the guard’s supervisor.
Response. Responding to absenteeism was sometimes difficult, according to those interviewed. The problem was that when a guard missed a certain shift, he might not see that shift’s supervisor for two or three days.
Communication. Another problem was the lack of communication within the company. The company’s central dispatch station takes information about absences, finds a replacement guard, informs management, and adjusts payroll accordingly. However, with all of their duties, dispatch employees sometimes failed to inform supervisors about absences. This lack of accurate information was a contributing factor with regard to the problem of uneven discipline.
After it had its findings, the team held a feedback meeting with the company’s managers to look for solutions.
The team first highlighted the positive findings, including that everyone understood that absenteeism was a serious problem that needed to be addressed and that everyone in management generally agreed on the criteria that should be applied in responding to it.
The team then discussed the factors contributing to the problem, such as the lack of communication about who had been absent and the lack of uniformity in responding to absences.
The meeting participants formed three working teams to discuss and propose some solutions to the absenteeism issue. One team, composed of the general and operations manager, worked with the communication and central radio issue.
This team proposed changes in the organizational structure of the operations area so that a handful of people would have the direct responsibility for conveying absentee information to managers and supervisors. By centralizing the process, the team hoped to improve the likelihood that managers and supervisors would be given timely and accurate information about absences.
The second team, including supervisors and human resources personnel, developed a return-to-work interview to be conducted after each voluntary absence. Designed to determine why the guard missed work, the interview included a questionnaire to be filled out by the supervisor and the absent guard.
The questionnaire is intended to create a record of information. It begins with general data such as name, post, and number of days absent. The questionnaire also contains a portion to be filled out by the absentee explaining why he or she did not come to work. The questionnaire is signed by the guard and the supervisor before being turned over to the operations manager and the HR department.
The team also added a lecture about absenteeism to the company’s orientation program and devised a program for guards that miss work. The program requires that HR contact frequent absentees to listen to their reasons for missing work, advise them, offer help on issues such as scheduling, and encourage them to make work a priority.
The third team included the administrative and HR managers. It focused on identifying any recognition or awards that could be given to employees who never missed work.
The team devised monthly raffles among those who rarely missed work. The prizes were things that could be enjoyed by the entire family, such as home appliances, movie tickets, and tickets to amusement parks. Also, an annual bonus was implemented for those who missed work the least. To make these proposals sustainable, the team planned to use money saved through the reduction in absenteeism brought about by the other aspects of the plan.
All of the ideas from these three groups were pulled together into a plan of action.
There were no problems with implementing the plan because the company owner was involved in the process from the beginning, ideas were generated by teams that represented all areas of the organization, and start dates, tracking, and follow-up meetings were also part of the original program.
As a part of the action plan, the team also knew that it needed a way of measuring success: it had to agree on a definition of an absentee rate. To arrive at a rate of absenteeism, the company used a formula: the number of absentee hours divided by the total number of hours worked in the period.
Using historical data, the absenteeism rate was 16 percent for the eight months preceding the inception of the new plan. The rate for the six months after the program dropped to 10 percent. Though there is no target absenteeism rate that the company is shooting for, we continue to track absences and expect that the rate will continue to fall.
Interviews with guards are now conducted whenever they are absent. Those interviews show a reduction in absenteeism for frivolous, avoidable reasons. The causes for the guards’ voluntary absenteeism, in order of frequency, are now: personal time allocated for visiting their children’s schools, conducting personal business, and attending to legal issues; recuperating from short-term illnesses; and family issues, especially taking care of sick family members.
Absenteeism is a problem that plagues many, if not most, security officer operations. But as this case illustrates, it is a problem that can be minimized. The first step is to find out exactly what is the real cause by talking directly to supervisors and guards. That data can then be analyzed and used to develop a targeted solution.
Gerardo de los Santos has been an owner-manager of a regional security guard contractor company, which works in Northeastern Mexico, for more than 15 years. He is a member of the ASIS Mexico Norte Chapter. This article is part of his graduate program at Pepperdine University in Los Angeles, California.