Attendance Management

by Kate Russell

Return-to-work meetings

The return-to-work interview developed during the 1980s when self-certification of short absences was introduced, with the result that firms were encouraged to review this process rather than simply rely on a doctor’s note.

Return-to-work meetings are one of the most effective ways of reducing persistent short-term sickness. Return-to-work interviews can help identify short-term absence problems at an early stage. They also provide managers with an opportunity to start a dialogue with staff over underlying issues which might be causing the absence.

You should carry out a return-to-work meeting for all employees returning from sickness absence, however short or long the absence. It avoids accusations that you are picking on an individual.


Although this is one of the best tools you can use, it has to be done properly. Some managers feel very uncomfortable having this conversation, even though it’s part and parcel of their job. This discomfort manifests itself in several ways:

  • Poor eye contact (many become fascinated with the papers on their desk or the toe of their shoe)
  • Failing to probe
  • Failing to agree specific improvement targets.

Others only do it because ‘HR have told them to’.

If you fall into either of these categories, you are missing an opportunity!

Points to cover in the meeting

Use the meeting to complete or sign off any self-certification forms or to collect a doctor’s certificate. The completion of a self-certification form is an ideal trigger point for a return-to-work discussion. Make sure you hold the meeting in private and preferably before work starts on the day of return.

The meeting will go one of two ways, depending on the employee’s attendance record.

  1. Where an employee has generally good attendance, there are still points to be discussed.
  • Welcome the employee back.
  • Ask him how he is and confirm the reason for his absence.
  • Ask whether medical advice has been sought or taken, if this is appropriate.
  • Ask whether you need to take any actions to help him reintegrate into work.
  • Use the meeting to update the employee with job-related information – what happened while he was off sick – and let him know that he was missed.
  • Use the opportunity to praise the employee.
  • Update your documentation.

Sometimes, employees are so conscientious that they will come back to work too early and may still be ill. In these circumstances, send them home again until they are recovered.

  1. Where there is concern about an employee’s levels of attendance, the format will be rather different.
  • Welcome the employee back.
  • Ask him how he is.
  • Confirm the reason for the absence.
  • Show him his attendance record and discuss the facts. (Quite often, the employee won’t realise how much time he’s had off and this reminder is all it takes.)
  • Ask him if there is an underlying medical reason causing his absence.
  • Ask whether medical advice has been sought or taken, if this is appropriate.
  • Agree actions to reintegrate into work.
  • Ask him what you can do to help and support him to improve his attendance.
  • Use the meeting to update the employee with job-related information – what happened while he was off sick. Let him know that he was missed.
  • Agree action; get commitment, and be specific about the improvement you require.
  • Update your documentation. Set a timescale to review progress.
  • Follow up at the due date.

It may be the case that the employee becomes angry or defensive and accuses you of suggesting that he’s not been genuinely ill. Illness is not the issue here. The issue here is his attendance, about which you have concerns.

Questions to ask at a return-to-work meeting

Below are some questions that may reasonably be asked.

  • How have you been?
  • What were the symptoms?
  • When did you first notice them?
  • What medical advice did you seek?
  • What does your doctor say?
  • Is there an underlying medical condition causing your absences?
  • What level of work can you now undertake?
  • What are you doing to stop the recurrence of the problem?
  • How can I/we help you?
  • Are there any reasonable adjustments we need to consider making?
  • (Alternatively, review those already made and ask ‘What else can we do to help and support you?’)
  • What issues are there to be dealt with when you return to work?
  • What would make it easier for you to come to work?

Unsuitable questions

Don’t be sarcastic or flippant; this means not saying or asking the following:

  • You’ve been skiving again.
  • Good holiday?
  • Don’t worry – it’s not a big problem (it is!).
  • A few days’ sickness is OK (it is not!).
  • Just sort it out!