Attendance Management

by Kate Russell

A sample procedure

To avoid confusion and disputes, it is sensible to have a clear-cut written procedure for absence management. Below is a sample absence management procedure. There is no legal standard for identifying and dealing with short-term absentees, but remember that reasonableness must be a guiding factor.

1. Introduction

As an employer, the organisation has an obvious wish to ensure regular attendance at work on the part of its employees. In addition, as a good employer, it wishes to take an interest in the health and welfare of the people whom it employs. It also seeks to ensure that undue pressure is minimised for those people whose attendance record is good and whose workload is increased as a result of staff sickness. This personnel procedure is designed to provide a framework within which the organisation can achieve these important objectives.

The procedure sets out some formal steps to provide such a framework, but this does not prevent managers from carrying out a supportive welfare role in informally meeting staff with health difficulties and problems and assisting them in any way which may be appropriate.

Throughout this procedure, all information concerning an employee’s health will be treated in the strictest confidence.

As part of a line manager’s role, home visits to employees on long-term sickness absence or in other circumstances where the line manager thinks it appropriate are positively encouraged.

2. Short-term sickness

Short-term absences may be defined as those which last for fewer than eight calendar days (including weekends and bank holidays) and are therefore certified by the individual rather than by a medical practitioner. In considering employees’ records of absence of this nature, line managers will take into account the pattern as well as the total amount of sickness absence.

First stage

If a line manager feels that there is an unusually high level of sickness absence, for instance more than ten days within a twelve-month period, he should meet the employee in the context of a welfare discussion. The first assumption should be that the employee has been absent for genuine medical reasons, unless there is specific evidence to the contrary. This should be made clear to the employee, so that there are no grounds for believing that an attempt to discipline him concerning absences is being made at this stage. The employee should be encouraged to talk about his reasons for absence, what medical or other help is being provided to him at present and whether he would like the organisation’s assistance in any way to try to resolve the problems.

Second stage

Where short-term absences continue to take place, despite the above counselling and offers of assistance, the line manager should see the employee again. As before, the interview should normally be held in the context of a counselling and welfare discussion, but on this occasion, the desirability of a referral for independent medical advice should be discussed. If both the organisation and the employee agree that this would be helpful in identifying and remedying the problem, arrangements should be made by the line manager for this to happen, with any necessary fees paid for by the organisation. Following the interview, the line manager should write to the employee, confirming the main points covered and any assistance which has been offered, and indicating that the employee’s record will continue to be kept under review.

Third stage

If there is still no improvement within the next two or three months (or if absences start to recur after that period) the line manager should see the employee again. At this stage, if it has not been done before, arrangements must be made for independent medical advice to be obtained, on the same terms as stage two. Where that advice does not identify causal medical factors and there are no other mitigating factors, a letter should be sent to the employee making it clear that his attendance record is not acceptable and that an immediate and sustained improvement must be made if future employment is not to be jeopardised.

Where that advice does not identify causal medical factors and there are no other mitigating factors, a letter should be sent to the employee making it clear that his attendance record is not acceptable and that an immediate and sustained improvement must be made if future employment is not to be jeopardised.

It may be that the employee refuses to undergo a medical examination. He should be assured of his right to a copy of the report which is obtained, but if there is still a refusal the employee cannot be forced to comply. However, subsequent decisions as to appropriate actions, including termination of employment, are not prevented from being made because of such a refusal. It is for the employer to make a reasonable judgement on all the facts which may be available, which should include medical evidence if possible, but which may also be made in its absence if the employee objects without reason.

Consideration of termination of employment

If, after a further short period (the length of which will be determined by circumstances), there is still no improvement, termination of employment will have to be considered. At this stage it becomes important to decide whether the absence is genuinely for ill-health or if it is not for legitimate health reasons.

If the sickness absence is genuine, the context of termination is an inability of the employee to properly discharge his duties. In this case, consideration should be given to possibilities such as redeployment to an easier job, reductions in hours or use of appropriate adaptations, if these would present an acceptable solution which may replace a decision to terminate. His director should discuss the problem frankly and fully with the employee and then notify him of the decision made in the light of that discussion. A right of appeal to the Chief Executive should be given.

If it is considered that the absence is not for genuine health reasons, the matter should be considered as misconduct and the disciplinary procedure invoked.

Deliberate non-attendance at work may be regarded as gross misconduct, depending on the circumstances, and therefore the employee should be informed that the result of a disciplinary hearing may be dismissal.

Representation

At all stages of this procedure, employees will be afforded the right to have a trade union representative or work colleague present.

3. Long-term sickness

The circumstances which give rise to absence of this type are usually quite different to those causing short-term absence. These will almost always be cases where an employee has a substantial and often on-going illness, or has been subject to some form of major injury. Because absence is long-term, it will be supported by a doctor’s or hospital medical certificate. The approach set out above for dealing with short-term absences is unsuitable for these circumstances. Instead, decisions are required to be taken in the light of the medical evidence and on the basis of balancing the needs of the organisation and the capabilities of the employee.

Regard must also be had to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA), which requires employers to provide reasonable assistance, resources and support to employees with a long-term physical or mental impairment, whether that came about before or since employment was taken up. This is, therefore, an issue requiring a welfare approach and it should never be dealt with as a disciplinary matter.

Any employee who has been absent on certified sick leave for more than a month should by then have had contact with his line manager by telephone and/or by visits to ascertain his progress and to determine whether there is any practical assistance which the organisation could give. This should be done in the context of genuine welfare assistance and not in any way so as to intrude into the employee’s privacy or harass the employee as to when he will be coming back.

If the employee wants it, there should be continued contact of this nature, in order that he does not feel forgotten by the organisation.

Return to work

When an employee who has been long-term sick returns to work, his line manager should arrange to see him at the earliest opportunity to provide a welcome, ensure that he is fit for work (some people come back too soon because they are concerned about their jobs or because they go through the time limits for reduction in pay) and to update him on the current work in the department. Any problems of a major nature, such as not being really fit for work, should be referred to a director.

Under the DDA, there must be an assessment of the support and needs required for the employee to attend work. This includes looking at issues such as reduced hours for a period of rehabilitation (or longer), reasonable adjustments to the workplace and/or working conditions, reasonable adaptations or modifications to the premises and equipment and possible reallocation of duties.

Reasonable time off to attend medical appointments must also be given.

Incomplete recovery

If the employee is unlikely to recover sufficiently to enable a return to his full previous duties, the possibilities of finding alternatives or a reduced level of work must be considered. There is no obligation to create an unnecessary job to meet the employee’s needs, but all reasonable steps should be taken to identify a job which the employee is able to do – where appropriate with the benefit of training and again by making suitable adaptations to the workplace and/or equipment.

A further possibility, if the employee agrees, is practical assistance (time off, references and so on) in the finding of less onerous or more suitable employment outside the organisation.

No prospect of recovery

In cases where it becomes clear from all the evidence, and after proper assessment under the DDA, that it is really not practicable for the employee to return either to his previous job or to other employment within the organisation, termination on grounds of ill-health needs to be considered. It must be considered in consultation with the employee and it is not in any sense a disciplinary matter.

The ultimate decision should be taken by the employee’s director and only after the receipt of medical reports which support the view that there will not be fitness for work in the foreseeable future and normally not until at least six months has occurred. In considering timescales, the nature of the position held by the employee, the importance of replacing him and the feasibility of providing interim cover are valid factors, so an earlier decision may in some cases be appropriate.

If termination is felt to be necessary, the employee must be seen by his director and advised beforehand that he has a right to be accompanied by a fellow employee or trade union representative. Sufficient time should be allowed for the employee to arrange for this accompaniment and this may be of the order of ten days to two weeks. The employee should be informed of the medical conclusions, asked for his views, consulted regarding the feasibility of alternative employment and presented with the realities of the situation. It should also be ascertained that the employee is fully aware of any entitlement to state benefits.

There may be agreement that termination is the only option or that another option should be pursued. However, it may also be necessary to terminate without the employee’s agreement and the employee must be advised of a right of appeal to the Chief Executive in this case.

Terminal illness

In cases where it is clear that illness is leading to death in the near future, it would be inappropriate to embark on formal procedures and welfare assistance to the employee and his family should be provided as far as possible.

Note

For specific advice on managing employees with psychological health problems, see the topic on Psychological Health at Work.