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HOW TO CUT SICK DAYS IN HALF Absenteeism, Soviet Style.

Living the exciting life that I do, I’m buried in a book entitled “Why Nations Fail.” Columbus discovered the east coast of all the Americas at approximately the same time. The year may have been in 1492. Or it may be that 1492 rhymes well with “sailed across the ocean blue,” which seems a stronger case for choosing 1492. Why read this book? I had thought about the economic development differences between countries up and down the Americas, (eg., USA, Canada, the Caribbean, South America), all so different yet European influence began approximately at the same time in history. Unexpected, came a lesson in Soviet style attendance management. In 1940, during the height of Russia’s communism years, a whole set of laws was implemented, making it a criminal offense for workers to be seen shirking. Russia was trying to force productivity and national wealth. Low productivity, absenteeism from work was part of the problem. Absenteeism was defined as any twenty minutes of unauthorized absence, or idling on the job, and it became a criminal offense. The punishment? Six months hard labor and a 25% pay cut. Between 1940 and 1955, 36 million people, (about one third of the adult population), were found guilty. 15 million were sent to prison. 250,000 were shot. In one year, 2.5 million people were exiled to the gulag in Siberia. Still it didn’t work. Productivity, workplace participation, absenteeism, was at an all time low and Russia’s economic output kept dropping. My Columbus story had turned into a horror lesson in bad management. If you were considering legalism to counter high absenteeism in your organization, let it go. Listen to your HR manager. Even the threat of Siberia won’t reduce your sick days. Today we know that two thirds of all sick days taken, don’t include a sick person. Sick days have become “me days.” Extra holidays, time off. Is emotional engagement external or internal? Do you hire or manage for employee participation? The answer is, some of both.

  1. Sick days are a snapshot of the work relationship. Supervisory culture matters.

  2. Sense of meaning in the work itself. Feedback, I matter.

  3. Work ethic and character matter. You can hire for increased participation and engagement. Look for a “sense of duty.”

Some people believe you have to provide them with job satisfaction, (and pizza). Others believe they have a sense of duty to your organization no matter what. Choose those with a huge sense of duty. Choose emotionally mature people.

Strong leadership applied to people with a sense of duty, produces powerful results.

Thank you

Wolf Babbel



1. Source book, “Why Nations Fail.” by Acemoglu and Robinson. 2012.

2. Employee participation, or emotional engagement refers to a number of things including: absenteeism, late, minimal throughput, low effectiveness, lack of communication, turnover, legalism, errors, rework, and all those things that don’t seem to attach themselves to your best employees.

3. Job satisfaction is the employer’s problem. Sense of duty to the workplace is the employee’s character.

4. A quick lesson in leadership styles. There are leaders who criticize and leaders who don’t. That’s all.

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