What is the Bradford Factor? And is it really fair?

No, it’s not a West Yorkshire-based TV talent show. You’ll hear about the Bradford Factor in many HR discussions related to staff absence, but its meaning and method aren’t always understood by managers or employees.

Here’s what you need to know about this controversial measure of staff absence.

We'll start with the nuts and bolts of it, then tell you how we really feel.

What does Bradford Factor mean?

The Bradford Factor theorises that different absences have different costs - not just in days and hours.

For example, an employee staying off work for a whole week for, say, a hospital visit, can be planned for. Managers can redistribute their work between other employees. But another worker who calls in sick ten minutes before their shift can’t be planned for. If they end up off for a week with a virus, that’s not ideal, but at least you can plan for them not being around for a while.

What could be worse is if they have a recurring but unpredictable pattern of absence, which could lead to time spent juggling their responsibilities around. For project-based businesses this is inconvenient, but for smaller service businesses where rotas ensure the right number of people are there to serve demand, it can potentially be quite harmful.

The Bradford Factor was invented to try to track and understand these potential problems. (The name comes from the fact it was developed at the Bradford University School of Management in the 1980s.)

How do you calculate the Bradford Factor?

There are two figures that go into the score; S and D.

S is the number of separate absences the employee’s had in total. (So a single day off would be 1, and a full week off would also be 1.)

D is the number of days they’ve had off in total.

So an employee’s Bradford Score (B) is calculated as follows:  S x S x D = B

Let's take a look at a few examples to see how it works.

Example calculations of the Bradford Factor

In the last year, Alex has been away from work twice. Once was for 4 days, the other was for 5. We’d therefore calculate her score as: 2 x 2 = 4, then 4 x 9 = 36.

And in the last year, Sam has been away from work six times, each a single day at a time.  We’d calculate it thus:  6 x 6 = 36, then 36 x 6 = 216.

So even though Alex spent more days off work, Sam ends up with a much higher score, due to the fact it was on so many different occasions.

As we’re dealing with multiplication, the results can be pretty high, going into the thousands for some frequently-absent workers.

What is a good Bradford Factor score

This is kind of a subjective area. There's a huge range of scores and you'll need to consider what's appropriate for your business. Different companies are going to set different parameters, different scales.

Here’s a typical example of a scaling system that you might see in use.

  • 0 - 99: No concern
  • 99 - 199: Action required (verbal warning)  
  • 200 - 399: Disciplinary action (written warning)  
  • 400 - 600: Serious disciplinary action (final written warning)  
  • 600+ : Dismissal

There’s no national agreed scale - it has to be decided by management and HR based on what they think is acceptable, and what isn't.

That is, if they decide to use the Bradford Factor at all - it's just one option for absence management.

Is the Bradford Factor fair?

In a word - no!

We don't think the Bradofrd Factor is fair. And we feel strongly enough that we don't support it in Timetastic, and don't plan to.

Here's why.

On the one hand, it’s a simple and easy way of calculating the impact absence has on the business. The threshold system allows at-a-glance decisions to be made on what action needs taking in what circumstances.

But it’s a simple formula that can’t take into account the reasons behind absence, or how to manage them. It's not human, and doesn't take into account any realty of working life. Compassion and understanding are necessary for a healthy business with a positive company culture, which can’t be represented in a simple calculation.

How it can go wrong

Let's look at an example.

Take someone with a long-term medical condition. Imagine they have one or two unpredictable visits to hospital each month, this will give them a high Bradford Factor score.

And they have a coworker who's a real slacker - frequently calling off sick, making excuses, and taking the mickey. They'll have a similar score.

Should the two cases be treated the same? Absolutely not, but the Bradford Factor assumes they are. The result is that you'll have the first worker - who otherwise might be an absolute superstar - treated with suspicion, getting a disciplinary record for something out of their control. And the slacker's treatment is no worse.

This has the potential to really harm company culture.

Years ago, I was a team manager in a call centre. One of my team ended up with a massive Bradford factor because she had to take regular time off to care for her disabled sister. HR presented the calculations, the table of highest Bradford Factor scores - and higher management saw her as a lazy slacker. I had to run her disciplinary hearings, while thinking to myself, "this isn't her fault at all!" It was not a nice experience for anyone involved. (You won't be surprised to hear the culture there was pretty awful, and the place has now closed.)

The Bradford Factor goes against what we believe to be essential parts of modern company culture. Flexibility, compassion and understanding aren't just the morally right way to do things. They guarantee staff happiness, health, and loyalty, which leads to long-term business success.

Fortunately there are alternatives to the Bradford Factor, and we'd encourage you to read and incorporate them into a healthy and compassionate system of absence management.

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