Absenteeism is catchy, finds Israeli study

The Technion’s Michal Biran: People with a conformist nature are much more likely to conform to the norms of their peers rather than company policy.If your best friends at the office think its fine to skip work frequently, then there’s …

The Technion’s Michal Biran: People with a conformist nature are much more likely to conform to the norms of their peers rather than company policy.If your best friends at the office think its fine to skip work frequently, then there’s a very good chance that you will too, according to a new study by Israeli researchers.

The research, which was carried out by Prof. Peter Bamberger and his doctoral student, Michal Biran, from the Faculty of Industrial Engineering and Management at the Technion in Haifa and is to be published soon in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, shows that an employee’s peer group can significantly influence their decision to miss work.

In addition, it showed that group influence on individual behavior is strongest among employees with a ‘conformist’ personality, and has much less influence on those with individualist natures.

“People with a conformist nature are much more likely to conform to the norms of their peers rather than company policy,” Biran told ISRAEL21c.

Absenteeism is a huge problem throughout the Western world and millions of dollars in productivity are lost every year. In the US, sick days are on the rise, reaching 2.5 percent in 2006, the highest point since 1999, according to a recent study by CCH, an Illinois-based company that provides research on human resources and employment law information.

The study also reported that only 35% of unscheduled absences, which often rise during holidays periods like Christmas, were due to personal illness. The rest were due to family issues, personal needs, and stress. One in four employees consider sick days to be equivalent to vacation days, according to CareerBuilder.com, which conducts an annual survey of employee absenteeism.

Bamberger and Biran carried out their research on 154 production line workers in a food plant in the north of Israel. Unlike usual surveys, the questionnaires were not anonymous and the workers responded using their full names. Workers were even asked to put down the names of the co-workers they were closest to at the plant, and the researchers also contacted them. These colleagues constituted the individual’s group norms, whose influence the researchers investigated. The minimum peer group was three people, while the maximum was six.

“It took a great deal of cooperation with the factory to get people in these surveys to write down their details,” says the 31-year-old Biran. “We had to work hard to convince the trade union.”

In the survey, the researchers gave employees a list of reasons why they might take a sick day ranging from a fever to a sick child, fixing the car, or the need to pay off bills in a bank, and asked them to say whether or not they were legitimate.

“We found a pattern exists within the informal peer group,” says Biran. “A person looks at how their closest friends in work will behave and this influences their own absentee behavior.”

Some for example felt that it was fine to take a sick day if you have a fever or a headache, others, however, did not believe it is a good enough excuse. The researchers also carried out personality tests to try to identify which people are more likely to conform to the norms of their social groups than others.

“We discovered that people who are conformist by nature are more vulnerable to the influence of their peers. It is more important for them to tow the line of their friends rather than the company, otherwise they will be punished socially. Those who are individualist will make their own decisions about what they feel is right,” says Biran.

These findings have important implications for employers in their fight against absenteeism. The researchers recommend that managers identify individuals and groups in the organization for whom absenteeism is the norm ? those that view many and varied excuses as legitimate ? and devote efforts towards educating these employees.

“Employers should deal with the group rather than an individual to try to prevent absenteeism in the company,” says Biran.

The study concluded that instruction should focus on the high cost of absenteeism, both from the point of view of the employer and that of the worker’s colleagues. It suggested that collective compensation programs or rewards for units or groups with low rates of absenteeism can reinforce the educational process.

About Nicky Blackburn

Editor and Israel Director, Nicky Blackburn has worked extensively as a journalist and editor both in Britain and Israel for a range of national and international publications including The Cambridge Evening News, London News, Travel Weekly, Israel High Tech Investor, and The Times of London. She was the Associate Editor at LINK Israel’s Business and Technology Magazine, and the High-Tech Correspondent for The Jerusalem Post.