There are many reasons why employees are absent from the workplace. For example, this may be due to long or short term sickness absence, other authorised periods of absence such as maternity or paternity leave or in some cases where prior authorisation has not been sought, this may be classed as unauthorised absence.
Whatever the reason for the absence, it is important that employers manage periods of employee absence appropriately and effectively.
In seeking to deal with employee absence, it may be useful for employers to bear in mind the following:
A clear Absence Management Policy is crucial in dealing with periods of employee absence. This policy should set out the procedure for reporting absences, including who the employee should notify and when, the procedures in place for keeping in touch with employees who are absent from the workplace and, in certain circumstances, how the organisation may assist in co-ordinating and facilitating an employee’s return to work, following periods of absence.
It is important to establish the reason behind periods of prolonged employee absence. Employers should see medical evidence as to the reason for the absence and an indication as to when the employee may be able to return to work. Upon receipt of this information, employers may wish to consider whether a phased return could be appropriate, or if there are any changes or modifications which could be made to the employee’s role to assist them in returning to the workplace. Meetings should be held with the employee in this regard. A balance must be struck between the employer’s need to have work performed by a particular employee and that employee’s health. Legal advice should always be sought before dismissing an employee who is on long term sick leave.
An employee who is persistently absence from the workplace for short periods at a time presents a different problem. In this instance it will also be appropriate to meet with the employee to discuss their absence from the workplace. Employees may be given a timeframe in which to improve their absence rate and if same has not sufficiently improved after this time, consideration may be given to disciplinary action on the grounds of conduct or capability, depending on the reason for the absence. A series of warnings may be appropriate as a pre-cursor to a potential dismissal. Employees should always be made aware if the termination of their employment is a potential outcome.
In all instances of employee absence a dismissal on grounds of capability/conduct should be a last resort and legal advice should always be sought prior to any action being taken. The fairness or otherwise of a dismissal may depend upon; the nature of the illness, the length of various absences and any spells of good health in between, the need of the employer to have work performed by the employee in question, the impact of the absence on other employees, the size and nature of the employer’s business including their resources and finally whether the employee in question was made aware that their employment was at risk of termination, and if their employment was terminated, whether the relevant statutory procedures were followed.
In all cases (although this may be particularly relevant in relation to long term sickness absence), consideration should be given as to whether the employee in question could potentially be suffering from a disability as defined by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 – medical evidence should be sought in this regard. If so, an employer should consider whether there are any reasonable adjustments which could be made to facilitate the employee’s return to work.