HR Policy: Dealing with Employee Absence and Return to Work Meetings

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All companies, large and small, have to deal with employee absence at some point. Clear, concise and easy to access HR policies for employee absence and return to work meetings can help this process; ensuring that all employees understand what is expected of them, and what to expect in return from the company, by means of support or disciplinary action, if problems arise. All new employees should receive a copy of the policies, and updates should be distributed to all current employees.

HR Policy for Absence

Setting clear policy about what is expected of employees in the case of absence decreases the chance of misunderstandings leading to unauthorised absence, increasing the ability of management to respond against it when it happens.

A typical HR Policy for absence can outline the following:

  • How long prior to the planned working time an employee needs to contact the company to ensure no disciplinary action will be taken (and what form of contact is acceptable for this communication)
  • When absence is not acceptable; clearly not making an effort to get to work when there is just a sprinkling of snow etc., or when absence is expected; in the case of sickness and diarrhoea where an employee coming to work is more likely to cause disturbance and spread the sickness etc.
  • What paperwork needs to be provided for sick leave; (self-)certification/fit to work notes

Being flexible, accommodating employee absence where possible can earn your company respect with employees and encourage them to work harder in their appreciation. For this, your HR policy may contain:

  • If (and how) flexible working or overtime in lieu can be arranged for employees to make up for absence
  • If (and how) remote working can be used to let employees work even if they cannot reach the workplace

Also, making clear what an employee can expect from the company while they are absent in the form of pay and contact can avoid stress about how they will be able to fit back into work from long-term leave or stress from complications when it comes to pay time. For this your HR policy may contain:

  • What pay an employee should expect whilst they are absent; if they are absent because of snow, or to find childcare when schools are closed for the day because of snow, there is no legal obligation to pay the employee for working unless the workplace itself has to be shut due to the snow, whereas if the employee is off sick they can expect statutory sick pay and any extra sick pay that the company provides through their contracts and T&C
  • What contact the company will keep whilst an employee is on long-term sickness to keep an eye on progress and ensure coverage of their time off can be arranged appropriately and that when the employee is ready to come back to work they can quickly be reintegrated with the company team

HR Policy for Return to Work Meetings

Return to work meetings can be useful for a few reasons:

  • Making sure employees realise that absence is an important matter to the company
  • Giving your employees all the information they need to get settled back into work quickly
  • Checking that your employee is up to the tasks required of them in the job they are returning to or helping decide if there needs to be changes to the work load to ease them back in. Particularly if they are still on medication which may cause side effects that could affect their work, or the type/location of work.
  • Identifying underlying problems causing extra absence such as poor work design or employment relations

However you decide to use return to work meetings it is important to ensure that they are used in a positive fashion, to gain information useful for employee care and business development, and not as a disciplinary/interrogatory action. Making your return to work meetings policy clear can help to stop misconceptions forming about them. Items you could cover in your return to work policy include:

  • When return to work meetings are held (eg. after a certain amount of absence over a set period of time)
  • What can be expected in a return to work meeting and why, what information is talked about and how that information will be kept (ensure information about employee illness is kept confidential)
  • What conclusions can be made from the return to work meetings (agreements on changing employee work load/position/hours, arrangement of employee support etc. as needed)

HR Policy on Absence Disciplinary Action and Dismissal

Disciplinary action for absence due to sickness or poor weather conditions is unlikely to be accepted as fair by a tribunal and may even be attributed to discrimination if the employee involved has a protected characteristic. However, this does not mean that absence cannot lead to disciplinary action or even dismissal if required. To ensure that any disciplinary action taken does not hurt the company reputation:

  • It should be made clear what is expected of employees, when sanctions are to be applied – verbal and written warnings or dismissal (based on certain amounts of unauthorised absence or authorised absence within a set period of time). This information could be included in your disciplinary policies.
  • The company should be as flexible as possible in trying to accommodate for employees to work around issues effecting their ability to work, taking into account GP fit to work notes and employee disability
  • Actions should be dealt fairly and consistently while taking into account the background of individual cases such as ongoing medical treatment etc. and must be carried out within the law.

HR Policy Involving the Management for Positive Absence Prevention

Whilst these absence and return to work meetings policies can help to keep absence under control it is good practice to ensure that your company is not causing increased absence. Managers should be trained to reduce the chances of employee work stress (which can lead to extra absence and lower productivity):

  • Making sure that individual employee work loads are not too high or too difficult, whilst ensuring their work is challenging and rewarding
  • Helping to create a positive working atmosphere
  • Being approachable so that employees can voice when they are having difficulties at work to solve problems as soon as they arise instead of letting them build up
  • Dealing with reintegration of employees from long-term absence as a company challenge rather than a problem the employee must face alone

For More Information on Managing Absence and Return to Work Meetings see:

A Note on Absence Record Keeping

Keeping accurate records about employee absence (when absence is occurring and why) can help company development and individual employee care as analysis of the data can help to:

  • Spot employees who may need support or a change in work load to improve their work hours
  • Find problem areas within your company that may need investigation to improve employee wellbeing
  • Quantify the effect of new campaigns put into action to help improve employee health and wellbeing

You should only keep data that is necessary for reasonable aims for employee care and company development, and employees should be aware of what data is kept and why. Also, any change in what data is kept also would need to be discussed with the relevant employee representatives/unions to ensure that there is an agreement on what can be kept and how.

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[This information is provided for reference only – no liability accepted. All registered trademarks recognised. E&OE.]

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