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How to use the Bradford Factor - and why you shouldn’t bother

Everyone gets sick. Whether it’s the common cold, the flu, or something more serious, sometimes people just need a sick day. That said, the average cost of staff absenteeism to a business is around £522 per employee, every year. For any company, that’s a lot of money lost. This is where the Bradford Factor comes in - at least, in theory.

When it was first suggested, the Bradford Factor was pitched as an easy way for businesses to get a handle on absence rates. It was easy to understand, simple to use, and helped to make obvious who was away from work too often, and what disruption their absence was causing the business.

And yet, the Bradford Factor has attracted a lot of controversy. For every HR manager that swears by it, there is another who decries it.

In this article, we’ll explain just what the Bradford Factor is and exactly how it works, but we’re also going to dig deeper. We’re going to hear some expert insight from HR professionals on what they think about the tool - strengths, weaknesses, exactly what it’s good for, and exactly what it isn’t.

So just what is the Bradford Factor?

The Bradford Factor is a simple maths equation that many companies use to try and make sense of staff absence rates. According to the CIPD, the Bradford Factor takes it names from a research paper published by the Bradford University School of Management in the 1980s.

It uses a simple formula in order to produce a score for every employee at your company. That formula looks like this:

S x S x D = Bradford Factor score

In this formula, S represents the number of spells of absence over a given timeframe - usually a year. D stands for the total number of days missed over that same timeframe.

Let’s look at an example:

Say a staff member gets the flu, and is off sick for two days. Later that year, they get food poisoning and need to take a further five more days off work. In this instance, the formula would look like this:

2 x 2 x 7 = 28

Different companies assess Bradford Factor scores in different ways. Some employers set out ‘trigger points’ which, once met, are then flagged to managers. Where those trigger points lie, and what action is actually triggered, is entirely up to the company. One trigger point could lead to an informal chat with a line manager; a higher trigger point might put into a motion a more formal disciplinary process.

Want to work out your own score? You can find our free Bradford Factor calculator here.

So just how useful is the Bradford Factor?

The actual, real-world usefulness of the Bradford Factor is a point of contention within HR circles. Let’s break it down and look at the two big advantages that Bradford Factor advocates put forward.

1.It’s efficient.

Making that calculation doesn’t take long, and it can be automated fairly easily. Much HR software already comes with the Bradford Factor in-built, so you can start using the tool straight away.

2. It’s fair.

The Bradford Factor is a mathematical equation, and will treat everyone the same - regardless of who they are. Using an equation helps to guard against favouritism within HR departments.  

But let’s slow down for a second. If you unpack either of those benefits to any degree then the Bradford Factor quickly starts to fall apart.

Why it doesn’t work

The Bradford Factor makes some pretty bold and flashy claims for itself. Just take a look at that list above. Easy to use, simple to understand, and totally fair to everyone.

Win/win, right? Not quite.

1. It’s not fair.

Yes - the Bradford Factor treats everybody the same. But to automatically designate that as a ‘fair’ outcome is falling into the age-old trap of matching equality with equity. Just because you’re treating everyone the same does not mean you are treating everyone fairly.

Your employees will all have different medical histories, different caring responsibilities, very different motivations, and very different lives.

If one of your employees is regularly missing days then try and find out the reason before it ever becomes a disciplinary issue. It could well be something you can help with as an employer - perhaps as simple as allowing them to start and finish work a bit later so they can drop kids off at school.

The fact that the Bradford Factor treats everyone the same is a weakness, not a strength.

Takeaway: HR is about people, and looking at people issues through a lens of numbers doesn’t actually make much sense.

2. It’s not efficient.

There’s nothing wrong with looking for efficiency. We understand better than most what it’s like trying to build a business from scratch - any opportunity to save yourself time is a godsend.

But this is your team you are talking about - the absolute lifeblood of your company. If you are a small business trying to get off the ground, your success rests squarely on their shoulders - your company will stand or fall depending on how well they perform. Is this really the place to be cutting corners and saving time?

If a member of your team is regularly late or off sick, then take the time to talk to them and find out what’s happening in their lives - again, you’ll be surprised at how often the problem is within your power to solve. Even if it’s not, just having that conversation will make your employee feel more valued by you and the company.

“Sickness absence can be complex, variable and unpredictable, and a business should not wait for an employee to hit a particular 'trigger point' on the Bradford scale before intervening. By doing so, they run the risk of failing to identify early on when that person needs help, which can then escalate into a long-term sickness situation.”

Charlotte Philip, Human Resources Consultant

Takewaway: By all means, automate your email newsletter - but don’t automate your relationships with your team.

The price of lazy HR

If overly relied upon, the inflexible, inherently people-blind nature of the Bradford Factor has the potential to really damage your team’s morale and performance. Here’s an example.

For instance - let’s say that an employee contracts the flu. They take three days off work, feel slightly better and - anxious about their Bradford score - drag themselves back into the office. However, instead of recovering fully, they end up becoming even sicker and miss another week.

This is a bad result on every front. First off, the business ends up losing the employee for much longer than was ever necessary. But more importantly, the employee will feel (and rightly) that they have been penalised for good intentions. This is inevitably going to affect their morale.

“It's in the employer's best interest to create an environment that allows people to do their best work, and feel great about it. By doing so, you address absenteeism at it's root cause, rather than treating the symptom.”

Craig Winterton, Head of People, Scape

The overarching message we’re trying to put across here is that you need to treat your people like people.

HR is not just about processing time off requests and doing payroll admin - it’s about building a great place to work so that your team performs at their best. You aren’t going to achieve this by treating them like a number and punishing them for behaving like a person.

Take the time, and reap the benefits

Some people might well accuse us of being naive here. We freely admit that some employees might not have your best interests at heart. There is always the possibility that someone will try and game the system, and sneak a day off here or there under the cover of a ‘cold’.

But if you’re relying on a maths equation to keep abreast of your staff absences, it’s very possible that you’ve lost the battle already. If you’ve already assigned an action to numerical trigger points, then all you’ve done is make it crystal clear how far a ‘bad egg’ can push their truancy before you take action.

The key thing here is that the Bradford Factor is reactive - it prompts you to take action after a problem has arisen. Why not be assertive in the first place about creating an environment where people don’t want to play truant - or even better, improving your hiring processes so that you aren’t hiring people who might play truant in the first place?

Tackling disruptive absences can be a tricky process, and one that calls for a more informed approach than is provided by a simple formula.

So what’s the alternative?

Rather than relying too heavily on the Bradford Factor, a good HR strategy takes a more considered view of staff absences. The goal is not to punish people for being absent - but to create an environment where employees both don’t want, or need, to miss time from work.

As we said earlier, it could be that recurring absences are being caused by something that the employer can help with - something that a simple return-to-work interview could uncover. Maybe the employee is a new parent, for example, and their absences would decrease if they could work more flexibly.

“Rather than relying on the Bradford Factor too heavily, a more effective, personal and kind alternative is return-to-work interviews, whereby you speak to your team members upon their return to work about their situation and find out if they need any support or help from the business. This approach is also more effective in identifying and exerting pressure on malingerers.”

Charlotte Phillips, Human Resources Consultant.

If you are running a small business then the prospect of conducting back-to-work interviews can seem daunting. It is yet another task to cram into the working day, and managing the records of those interviews only increases that workload.

This is where a system like Charlie comes into its own. Charlie allows you to track staff absences clearly and easily, and also makes managing the records from those interview records an effortless process. By freeing up your time from needless admin, you’ll be able to spend more of your day talking to your employees and finding out what they need to perform at their best.

If you want to find out more about how Charlie can help you keep on top of staff absences, improve staff performance, and save you time, then you can try it for free here.

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