Attendance Bonuses Lead to More Absences
Offering workers a monetary bonus or additional holidays to reward attendance does not reduce staff absences, or ‘absenteeism’
On the contrary, attendance bonuses can actually increase absences
This is because of a shift in workplace culture; offering the bonus transforms absenteeism from a negative trait to more acceptable behaviour
Don’t be late for work. Your start time is when you begin, not when you’re to arrive. Get here beforehand.
How different of a person would I have been today if this had not been drummed into me, into most of us? Entering the working world builds up such common professional practices, these common norms, which instil us with acceptable and unacceptable (or even reprimandable) behaviours, like pulling the odd sickie.
But while an absent day (i.e. sick days or absences without leave – other than entitled holidays) may be few and far between for most employees, many employers struggle with staff attendance. And indeed, this is a focus of much enquiry; how to get the most out of your workforce for your business.
One popular solution is by motivating perfect attendance through bonuses and incentives. While I have never worked anywhere that offered me bonuses on the basis of my attendance, the prospect of being given a supplement for simply upholding my end of a contract provokes me to wonder why anyone would not take full advantage of such an agreement.
And yet, when presented with the bonus scheme, apprentices in a German supermarket chain chose not to do so. Professor Timo Vogelsang at the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management along with Professors Jakob Alfitian and Dirk Sliwka at the University of Cologne undertook an investigation with a very simple proposition: do attendance bonuses reduce absenteeism?
Professor Vogelsang and his colleague’s study established two separate groups of apprentices.
The first set were part of the monetary bonus group. They were given an additional €60 on top of their existing pay for every three months of perfect attendance achieved, totalling a maximum of €240 per employee for a year of consistent attendance.
The second set were part of the holiday bonus group, and were instead provided with one additional day of holiday on top of their existing entitlement for every three months of perfect attendance. This could mean a total of four additional days of holiday per year.
In reading though their work, my initial unfiltered reaction was give me the time off. An additional day of holiday is a far better value reward than a mere €60 for three months of labour.
And here, in my own reaction, demonstrates a small window into why Professor Vogelsang’s research revealed that both forms of attendance bonuses were futile in decreasing absenteeism.
Because not only were they ineffective in producing any reduction of staff absences, but the monetary bonuses actually saw absences increase amongst apprentices. Those rewarded with money for perfect attendance on average took over five days extra off than those who had no bonuses whatsoever. And this didn’t just end with the study, but employees within this group demonstrated a lasting trait even after the bonus scheme had ended with further increased absences the following year.
As a result, the investigation left an enduring change in the behaviours held by the apprentices. In contrast to the regular perception of being absent from work as bad, reprimandable, and a risk to your own employment, the monetary bonus lifted this to simply losing out on the €60 bonus. Professor Vogelsang underlines that the “monetary incentive shifts employees’ perceptions about what they ought to do…. considerably [reducing] these intrinsic costs of absenteeism by shifting the apprentices’ perception of absenteeism as acceptable behaviour.”
When I considered the ‘mere €60 for three months of labour’ I immediately, without realising, negated the fact that the €60 is not a return for three months of work. Work is already paid, and the €60 is an additional extra for keeping to the already reimbursed employment. But this error on my behalf is representative of the wider issue Professor Vogelsang more eloquently establishes. The introduction of a bonus shifts workplace absence from an established bad practice, to less of a negative; instead of being concerned with professional image and relations with the employer, the presence of the monetary bonus changed the “material consequences” for the employee, now centred on that extra €60.
This should not suggest that employers should refrain from doing anything above and beyond an employment contract, as research shows that helping employees find more meaning in their work can lead to better performances.
Professor Vogelsang simply argues that this research demonstrates a need to refresh how we look at employee incentives, gratuities and bonuses because these can all have lasting impacts not only on the company but on the individual’s longer-term attitude to work.
So, if such a scheme had been in place when I had been at work, how different would we all have been today? If coming to work on time, or at all as this study shows, was not a must do but an ought to do, where would I be?
Probably arriving when I’m supposed to start, €60 short.