Where’s the Boss? That’s a Problem

Absent bosses, a common issue over the holidays, can threaten leadership and engagement.

Laura McHale

Senior Client Partner, C-Suite Succession


Sharon Egilinsky

Senior Client Partner, Organizational Strategy

The manager last saw his boss before Thanksgiving. He received emails from her with new assignments, but his own emails to her went unanswered. He tried to book a meeting with her, but her assistant rescheduled him—twice. 

Experts say that the repercussions of a boss’s absenteeism—due to outside commitments or holiday travel—are far from benign. “Performance will be impeded,” says Laura McHale, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s C-Suite Succession practice who authored a report on absent managers. She says organizations tend to ignore the issue, which her findings suggest has become serious. Indeed, her report, produced for the Korn Ferry Institute, suggests that absenteeism among managers may be up to seven times as prevalent as other types of destructive leader behavior. 

Many bosses occasionally find themselves called away from day-to-day operations. But experts say a leader’s presence is essential for providing direction, resolving conflict, and communicating employees’ roles and accountability, among many other responsibilities. When face time with the boss is hard to come by, boss-employee interactions are reduced to giving and taking orders, which can lead to a transactional relationship that denies employees development conversations and general support. Because absenteeism is defined as a lack of activity, it’s usually overlooked. “It flies under the radar, and is not seen as an overtly destructive leadership behavior,” says McHale. 

Experts say that the problem is particularly acute around the holidays, when employees take time away from their jobs and reflect on their roles and futures. “Leaders have an opportunity to shape their team’s mindset, and how they think about the upcoming year,” says Nathan Blain, global lead for optimizing people costs at Korn Ferry. “Missing that opportunity is a problem.” Blain suggests leaders should schedule one-on-one talks with all direct reports in December, as well as take time to send personalized emails celebrating individuals’ wins and building excitement for next year.

Fixing absenteeism is not easy, says McHale, because it often involves looking at the larger organization. Some companies normalize absentee leadership and even inadvertently support it, by creating schedules and cultures in which leaders are frequently pulled away from their teams, be it for travel or other tasks. Addressing absenteeism also involves exploring the reasons why a leader might struggle to show up for their employees. Does the boss have a tendency to avoid conflict? Do they lack the management skills to oversee complex team dynamics? 

When a leader is facing an unavoidable stretch of absenteeism, experts say it’s crucial to lay the groundwork for it by explaining the absence, keeping lines of communication open, committing to times of availability, and establishing contingency plans—in addition to making sure that employees are genuinely comfortable with the situation. Short-term, experts suggest leaders prepare for unanticipated holiday absenteeism over the next two weeks by meeting with teams to lay out end-of-year goals and articulate where people’s energies should be applied. “That way, even if you’re away, your people can still make the most of these December weeks,” says Sharon Egilinsky, a Korn Ferry senior client partner focusing on organizational strategy and sustainability.