21st November 2013



 Issue No.  2013/22




Further to our Updates on Medical Consent (2013/20) and Long Term Absence (2013/21), we now turn to Short Term Absence (STA).

Everyone recognises that an employee may not be able to attend work due to a genuine sickness reason and a one off absence is generally not a problem.  However, when the number of absences become frequent and regular this can become a major problem – not only in loss of production or service delivery but also in the effect it can have on colleagues who are usually the ones who have to cover for the absence.

Good management can reduce these absences without the need for any heavy action.  Ultimately if things are serious enough and no improvements are seen then there are grounds for disciplinary action to be taken.  With high frequency STAs, especially where there are multiple and various reasons for them, the employee is building a record of unreliability and employers are entitled to treat this as a disciplinary matter.

The Return to Work Interview

A key feature of positive management includes speaking with the employee on return.

Employers must be able to identify the attendance standards expected of employees and demonstrate that the employee failed to meet those standards.  Consequently, the employer will need to collate data and the best way to do that, is by having a return to work interview after each and every absence, irrespective of the length of the absence.

A return to work interview with the employee should be conducted to discuss:

  • the reason for the absence
  • to ascertain whether the employee is fit to return to work;
  • the level of previous absences;
  • whether any regular pattern is emerging.  Are absences mainly on days adjacent to weekends/bank holidays/none-working days.  This linking needs to be investigated. Is it a lifestyle issue, are there medical issues or is the absence a smoke screen for a casual day off?;
  • if there is an underlying health issue (should the employee to be referred to an occupational health practitioner or maybe consent should be obtained for a medical report from the employee’s general practitioner);
  • whether any adjustments need to be considered to the job or work environment (specifically in the case of an employee with a disability).

Apart from data about the individual, you should also compile general statistical data across the organisation.  This enables comparisons to be made throughout the workforce to ensure that actions taken are fair and consistent.

If informal efforts to improve matters fail than disciplinary action may be your remaining resort.

Disciplinary Action

If the employee has had frequent absences, (ignoring absences for holidays, maternity, paternity, parental leave, etc) and whilst not necessarily doubting the genuineness of any sickness absences, it may be appropriate to take action in accordance with the Company’s Disciplinary Procedure.  The employee should be issued warnings as appropriate and be given sufficient time to try and improve.  If there is no improvement, further disciplinary action is taken and the next level of warning issued, and this process continuing until dismissal stage is reached.  At that point the decision to dismiss the employee must be within the range of the reasonable responses available to a reasonable employer and remember - you may need to demonstrate that you have acted reasonably if the dismissal results in an unfair dismissal or discrimination claim at Tribunal. 

So how does an employer demonstrate that it has acted reasonably?

A few key features of the process you would adopt include:

  • transparent and consistent application of the employer’s sickness absence procedure;
  • sensible and clear triggers that prompt management action.  The Bradford Factor is such a trigger, but you can develop your own.
  • meaningful discussions with the employee about the reasons for the STAs
  • a fair review of the attendance record and the reasons for the absences;
  • an opportunity for the employee to state his or  her case and to improve attendance;
  • appropriate warnings (including that dismissal may ultimately result) if attendance does not improve after the employee has been given reasonable time to demonstrate improved attendance;
  • consideration of reasonable adjustments/alternative work (if the employee has a disability);
  • consideration of medical evidence?  (see earlier Update - 2013/20);
  • a right of appeal against dismissal, if appropriate.

Consequently, before dismissing an employee on grounds of capability (sickness or injury related) specialised advice should always be sought. This is always available to our ongoing clients with an HR support service in place and will be essential for those who also have the benefit of legal expenses insurance.  If you do not have this support and cover in place then please do feel able to contact us if you have any absence management issues affecting your business.

And finally - what if  you think the absences are dishonest?  This is a wholly different issue which we will address in a separate update.





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