Staff. They're a bit like apples. A well-rounded staff member can provide a refreshing boost, but pick a rotten one and you can really sour the barrel. A belligerent, lazy or rude member of staff can have a disastrous impact on team spirit, which in turn can affect productivity and in-store ambience one of the first things to be picked up on by shoppers.

Top of the list of gripes that employers have with their staff is absence. And the number-one reason touted for most absences is sickness. Whether genuine or fake, a last-minute staff absence causes a real headache for employers, and particularly small store owners who are forced to drop everything to hunt around for a replacement, before invariably plugging the gap themselves.

Genuine staff sickness is an irritating but unavoidable part of business life, but when an employer has doubts that the alleged stomach bug or sudden flu-like symptoms described by the shaky-voiced employee at the end of the phone are real, there is a problem.

Staff who 'pull sickies' are not just bad for business, they are also crippling for team morale instilling jealousy and resentment in their peers.

With prevention almost always better than cure, the key is to limit the number of 'sickies' that staff take in the first place, and this can be done in a number of ways.

Stop sickies

Having a clear policy on staff absence is a good place to start, says Alyson Eynon, organisation development and programmes manager for the Henderson retail group.

The policy should state that 'sick' staff always ring the manager in person before the start of a shift, and stay in regular contact to enable planning for future shifts, she suggests.

"It should also state that the retailer cannot ignore an unacceptable level of attendance at work as it affects the operational requirements of the store and places additional pressure on other employees.

"With a clear policy in place, retailers then need to monitor and manage absence at work fairly and consistently," she adds.

One way of doing this is to conduct a formal 'return to work interview'. Employers should ask the employee to explain their absence, whether a doctor was consulted, and if any medication was taken. It's also a good idea for employers to keep discreet notes on staff absences, as these could help to discern a pattern, such as if the employee is always off 'sick' on a Monday or Friday.

It's also advisable to have a 'trigger point' such as five days off sick in a year, after which further investigation and another formal meeting to discuss attendance is needed, says David Price, senior employment law specialist at law firm Peninsula. These interviews could expose a lie or, by the same token, reveal an underlying health or lifestyle problem if the sicknesses have been genuine, he says.

"A person who is repeatedly ill with food poisoning is clearly doing something wrong somewhere. It could also reveal a more serious health problem which could qualify for disability allowance," he adds.

However, if an employer genuinely feels that a staff member's level of attendance is unacceptable, be it through genuine or faked sickness, they are within their rights to take disciplinary action.

"Retailers should stress that they are disciplining due to the unacceptable level of absenteeism at work which is impacting on the business, and not because they doubt the sickness is genuine," Eynon points out.

If an employer has irrefutable proof that the staff member has lied about their absence, it can be dealt with as Gross Misconduct, which could result in dismissal.

Control hygiene

Another common, but altogether more delicate staffing problem, is smell. A recent survey by support services company Resource found that 36% of retail staff cited the poor personal hygiene of their co-workers as the thing that most distracted them from their work. And staff needs and noses aside, having a smelly employee working on the shop floor can also be exceptionally bad for business.

"The appearance and personal hygiene of employees is generally a customer's first impression of store standards and impacts greatly on sales," Eynon says.

It's also potentially hazardous if someone has poor personal hygiene they are more likely to spread bacteria, which in a food environment is a major concern.

However, dealing with olfactory offenders is anything but a breeze. "This is one of the most difficult and sensitive situations that an employer is likely to face and, indeed, many people would not deal with it at all," says Nisa-Today's HR manager Deborah Broddle. "A private chat on a one-to-one basis needs to take place. 

There is nothing to be gained by being unkind; perhaps you could say 'I'm going to have to tell you something because I would want someone to tell me'. This lets you assess their reaction and stops it from being quite so embarrassing. Be prepared, though, as however gently you put it your colleague is likely to be mortified. Keep it short, measured and as kind as you can, to spare any unnecessary shame."

Underlying cause

Price also recommends that retailers try to find the underlying cause of the problem; has the employee failed to shower this morning because of a time- management issue, or is it a more serious problem linked to their home life?

He advises retailers to finish the meeting with an agreement such as "use more deodorant, clean your teeth, or wash your hair before coming to work". Retailers should then keep a close eye on the problem and be prepared to take action if it reoccurs.

Adds Price: "Staff have a duty to convey a professional appearance at work to keep customers and the other employees happy. If they fail to keep this up then it is bad for business, and disciplinary action can be taken."

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