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Challenges of managing absenteeism in higher education

Manual practices and an honor system are costing higher education $451 million per year
University Business, July/August 2012
What’s the real impact of employee absenteeism on your institution? In a recent study of colleges and universities, 53 percent of respondents said they rely on manual processes like three-part leave slips and handwritten time sheets to track and approve time and absence. Consequences include human error and the potential for erroneous absence tracking. But inaccurate time tracking also impacts productivity, FMLA compliance, revenue, and pay-outs upon separation or retirement. This University Business web seminar, originally presented on May 17, 2012, addressed the real costs of manually managed absenteeism, and how automated systems can improve efficiency, productivity, and the bottom line.

Larry Fitch
Senior Workforce Management Consultant

Today we are talking about the costly gaps in systems used to track and manage absenteeism, how these gaps impact your budgets and operations, and what your peers are doing to solve the problem. 
As an analyst, I see a lot of information and I talk to a lot of institutions. And what it all comes down to is manual recording versus automation; clock punching versus the honor system. It is statistically impossible for anyone to come to work at precisely the same time each and every day. 
I audited the time sheets of one university and found 34 percent of time sheets contained no actual hours—just 8 to 5 written down for every day; 13 percent contained no employee signature, 2.9 percent contained no manager’s signature; 2.5 percent contained only hours—like 8 hours with no actual time ranges, and 1.6 percent contained no information at all. 
At another university, we looked at vacation hours available and taken. You could see that vacation hours were not being recorded at all. 
At a community college in Texas, of 10,000 hours audited, more than 300 hours were incorrectly keyed into the front-end system, and of those, 50 percent resulted in no reduction to the employee’s leave balance. 
Employees self-police as effectively as they can. But abuses can grow and undermine morale and become the tacit practice. Wage and hour reports will tell you that your practice is your policy. 
All of these honor processes, manual processes and paper-driven processes just snowball to exacerbate the problems around absence management.

Joseph Morris
Lead Analyst
Center for Digital Education

I want to share some findings from a recent survey that we’ve done and tell you how we got involved in looking at this issue. We were seeing something bubble up all across government and education in the form of news articles over and over again regarding spending controls and overtime payments. So we decided to conduct a survey that would look at the policies and systems in place in higher education and the procedures used to manage absenteeism.
We are going to discuss a lot of the details of information we gathered, but the bottom line is that, based on our findings, we estimate that the yearly cost of managing absenteeism across higher education is $451 million nationally. That is huge. And we think there’s an opportunity for significant efficiencies and savings with automated time and attendance systems to provide greater accuracy, better record keeping and analytics. 
We surveyed 120 decision makers or administrators in senior roles. Fifty-seven percent of respondents have more than 1,000 employees. The survey had 30 questions and was conducted online in late January.
Setting the stage:
  • 53 percent of respondents did not have automated time and attendance.
  • 48 percent felt their tracking systems were out of date.
  • 44 percent rely on employees to track their own absences in a centralized system.
  • 64 percent do not have an automated time request system.
  • 77 percent feel they are accurately calculating pensions based on actual hours worked by their employees.
  • 33 percent allow employees to apply unused leave to years-of-service calculations.
  • 82 percent believe their tracking systems are FMLA compliant.
  • 41 percent believe that absences reduce group productivity by anywhere from 25-75 percent.
First and foremost, our study showed how prevalent aging systems are in the higher education space. Fifty-three percent are relying on manual systems; 64 percent do not use automated requests for approval of time off. These findings help explain why 48 percent consider their systems to be outdated.
Errors result when absence management systems rely on manual and decentralized systems. This leads to input errors, lost documents and a heavy reliance on an honor system. 
Decentralized systems create several pain points. Information doesn’t flow into the right systems or get seen by the right people; there is no overall holistic view of the employee and their attendance records, and there are disconnects between who is responsible for absenteeism and enforcement.
The second largest issue we uncovered was that time-tracking responsibility often relies on the employee to report or document manually. 
  • 44 percent say self-reporting is the norm in their institutions.
  • 19 percent track manually within a spreadsheet.
  • 38 percent do not know how many unplanned absence days employees take each year.
  • 22 percent cannot track absences within a pay period.
One of our respondents said that they take the issue of tracking absence very seriously because it can impact morale of other employees who see people cheating the system and not getting caught. In fact, it was stated in our study that the best system in place to track employee time reporting abuses was other employees.
Interestingly we saw much more robust functionality when it came to integrating leave balances with payroll (79 percent) and with absences being integrated into payroll (56 percent).
So who is responsible for dealing with this?. Seventy-five percent of respondents say the responsibility falls to the direct supervisor and 20 percent to the department manager. What is more concerning is not so much who is doing it but how much time they spend doing it. Nearly 70 percent report that supervisors spend up to 2 hours per week on absence management.
Absences reduce group productivity, with more than 45 percent of respondents saying that productivity dropped from 25 to 75 percent because of absences.
And what about the potential liabilities that higher education institutions face? Sixty-eight percent say that carry-over hours never expire; 21 percent say employees can roll over expiring hours into another non-expiring leave type. This affects pension funding and has a long-term economic impact as employees prepare to retire. 
Calculating pensions is only as good as the data coming in. So even though 69 percent of higher education respondents have a reasonable to high level of confidence that they are accurately calculating pensions, that has to be, to some degree, based on faith, not fact. And that’s a big problem when 26 percent report that employees can apply unused leave hours to their service to move up retirement.
To view this web seminar in its entirety, please go to