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Calling in sick? That might not jell in Japan

Transnational research shows attitudes to absenteeism differ from culture to culture
October 8, 2013


Susan is a highly productive employee but is absent more often than her co-workers. She has decided to take a me-day because she believes that her absence will not affect her overall productivity.

Legitimate reason to be out of the office, or punishable offence? Depending on where "Susan" lives, it can be either, according to new research from Concordia’s John Molson School of Business.

A study recently published in Cross Cultural Management has shown that there are considerable national differences in attitudes towards workplace absences. Analysis of responses from 1,535 participants in Mexico, Pakistan, Ghana, India, the U.S., Canada, Japan, Trinidad and Nigeria proves that such absenteeism is more influenced by cultural stance than individual attitudes.

Management professor Gary Johns was the senior author of “The legitimacy of absenteeism from work: a nine nation exploratory study.” He explains that, “in light of globalization and increased interest in cross-cultural understanding of employees’ attitudes, perceptions and behaviour, we set out to investigate employees’ perceptions of the legitimacy of absenteeism from a cross-national perspective.”

Johns and his fellow researchers observed that respondents from Pakistan, India and Trinidad generally found absenteeism most acceptable, while those from the U.S., Ghana and Japan deemed it least acceptable. Respondents from Canada, Mexico and Nigeria sat somewhere in the middle.

At the extreme end of the spectrum, Japanese respondents were least accepting of absence in the abstract, but were also least likely to hold absentees accountable. They were also particularly forgiving of specific cases of absence, as recounted in the study’s scenarios.

What does this mean in practical terms? Lead author Helena Addae explains: “Organizations that attempt to develop corporate-wide attendance policies spanning national borders should take local norms and expectations concerning absenteeism into consideration.

“What’s normal for offices in Pakistan will not be the same for those in the U.S. Therefore, companies need to be culturally sensitive in establishing rules surrounding time off.”

Addae, who is now an associate professor at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, completed the study as part of her doctoral research at Concordia.

About the research: This study was supported in part by grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

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