Last reviewed 7 April 2022

Employers often find absence a tricky thing to manage. There is a need to balance compassion for the individual, the realities of life (we all get ill or injured at some point) and the sound running of the business. What must employers consider when applying absence management policies?

The importance of a procedure

The importance of a robust absence management procedure simply cannot be overstated. Having this in place can help employers gain an overview of absence levels in their organisation, manage excessive absences and put in place reasonable adjustments for disabled employees. An absence management procedure can include:

  • return to work interviews

  • informal discussion of absence levels

  • formal proceedings to discuss concerns with absence levels and notifying the employee that if improvement is not seen action will be taken

  • formal action following formal proceedings, which eventually could lead to dismissal.

For employers who do not already have such a procedure, taking steps to design and implement one that fits their business needs should be their first action.

Setting expectations

Key to managing absence is setting out expectations. Of course, ideally no employees would be off sick, but this is not possible all the time. However, reasonable expectations of average absence levels are good to set out and act as triggers for action should absence levels exceed them. What is reasonable will depend on the organisation, the nature of the work and the individual characteristics of the employee. However, setting general standards (that can be adjusted on an individual basis) is still a valuable exercise.

These expectations are often used to outline the process that will be followed should the absence become “excessive”. This includes stages at which various processes will be triggered, such as an informal discussion, formal discussion, a formal warning, etc. Eventually, should enough of the stages pass and improvement not be seen, the employee may be faced with the possibility of dismissal.

Adjusting expectations

Some employees may have high absence levels due to a condition that affects their ability to perform day-to-day tasks on a long-term basis and as such constitute a disability under the Equality Act 2010. Where this is the case, employers must act carefully, so as not to treat these employees less favourably than their colleagues.

An employee may not disclose such an illness, but where it is obvious from their absence levels, reasons for absence, and observation within the workplace (such as employees with stomach issues that cause them to be away from their workstation for lengthy periods), then it is reasonable to assume this is the case and therefore that some adjustments may be required to absence procedures.

Where there is a disability, the Equality Act 2010 requires employers to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate the disability and to enable the employee to perform their duties. These reasonable adjustments also apply to absence triggers, and depending on the nature and severity of the disability, these may need to be either adjusted for the individual circumstances or removed altogether if the circumstances require it.

Any action taken to adjust or remove triggers should be done in consultation with the employee’s occupational health and, sometimes, a medical professional involved in their care. This is to ensure that the adjustment is necessary (not all disabilities require excessive time away from work) and sufficient to meet the individuals needs. Failure to take such action could result in any dismissal based on absence triggers being found to be unfair, and potentially discriminatory too.

Removing absences entirely from consideration

Alternatively, some employees may have to be absent due to a requirement placed upon them, such as Covid isolation or where the employer has sent the employee home from work. Where this is the case, it would not be appropriate to include these absences as part of the employee’s overall absence figures, as in reality, they had no choice but to be away from work for the period and it could be viewed as “punishment” for following the rules set down by either the Government, or now that isolation is no longer legally required, the employer.

Another situation that requires absences to be excluded from absence triggers are temporary conditions, such as pregnancy, that can impact an employee’s ability to attend work consistently. Again, to these employees, absence triggers should not be applied, as it would be discriminatory to do so. It is also worth noting that an employee who has suffered a miscarriage remains protected as though still pregnant for two weeks after the event.

Finally, absences that are connected with family friendly leave, such as emergency time off for dependents, parental bereavement leave, etc should also not be included in absence triggers. This is due to the fact these rights are protected in law and therefore employees should not suffer a detriment from exercising them, and these are not sickness absences but are connected to a situation with another.

Conclusion

A key component of the employer/employee relationship is fairness. Fairness comes through consistency of treatment of all employees. It also comes through adaptation to individual circumstances, and accommodating individual needs, where to do otherwise would treat that person less favourably than their colleagues in relation to a protected characteristic they hold. Employers who follow these values will not only avoid potentially costly tribunal claims but also act in a way to ensure a committed workforce.