How to manage sickness absence during an ongoing HR process
Written by Gerard O’Hare on 26 July 2023
Managing sickness absence can be difficult at the best of times, but when an employee suddenly goes off sick during or in anticipation of an HR process, it can be even more challenging.
In this blog, we will explore common examples of such scenarios, possible reasons why employees resort to this behaviour, employer’s rights to continue the process, and some strategies that can help to encourage positive attendance and cooperation.
There are a number of situations in which an employee’s sickness absence might coincide with an ongoing HR process. Issues commonly occur when an employee goes off sick:
- During (or just before) a disciplinary investigation. Employees may suddenly call in sick upon learning about an impending disciplinary investigation. They might hope that their absence will postpone or halt the process, giving them more time to prepare their defense.
- During (or just before) a performance management process: When faced with poor performance feedback or a performance improvement plan, employees may use sickness absence as a way to avoid addressing their performance issues directly.
- After submitting a grievance: Employees might also feel anxious or stressed about potential repercussions after filing a grievance (in some cases, the grievance might relate to the decision to discipline them or put them on a performance improvement plan). It’s not uncommon for employees to resort to taking sick leave in order to duck the situation.
- Following conversations about conduct: Even in situations where formal action hasn’t yet been initiated, informal discussions about an employee’s behaviour or conduct might cause them to claim sickness to avoid further confrontation.
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Why might employees go off sick when faced with HR action?
There are several reasons why employees might resort to using sickness absence to avoid or disrupt during an ongoing HR process:
- Embarrassment and defensiveness: Facing disciplinary action or performance concerns can be embarrassing and overwhelming. Employees may feel defensive and might not be ready to address the issues, particularly if they disagree that there is a problem, prompting them to choose sickness absence to evade an uncomfortable situation.
- Stress and anxiety: HR processes can be emotionally taxing for employees. The fear of potential outcomes can trigger stress and anxiety. Some employees may genuinely require a temporary break to recharge and regain their emotional balance and thus opt for sick leave as a means of self-care and stress management.
- Perception of avoidance: In some cases, employees may believe that by going off sick, they can shield themselves from potential negative consequences, even if it only provides a temporary respite from the situation.
By understanding the common reasons why employees resort to sick leave as an avoidance tactic, employers can implement targeted strategies to reduce the likelihood of these situations occurring and, if they do, navigate them with empathy and fairness.
Can you continue the process?
While employers can proceed with a grievance, disciplinary or performance management process even if the employee goes off sick, it’s essential to ensure that the process remains fair and unbiased, taking into account the employee’s health condition.
As a first step, verify the authenticity of the sickness absence by requesting relevant medical documentation from the employee. This will help establish the validity of the absence and prevent potential misuse of sick leave to disrupt an ongoing HR process.
Once the legitimacy of the sickness absence is confirmed, consider conducting essential meetings remotely if the employee is well enough to participate. By using video conferencing or other communication tools, the HR process can continue despite the employee’s absence from the workplace, while also considering the employee’s health needs.
It is crucial, however, to ensure that the remote meetings do not compromise the employee’s rights or create additional stress for them during their recovery.
Dealing with extended absence or ghosting
In some cases, employees may prolong their absence or completely ‘ghost’ the employer during the HR process, perhaps hoping that it will go away. To address such situations:
- Maintain regular communication with the absent employee to demonstrate concern and gather updates on their health status.
- Request medical certificates to verify the legitimacy of extended sickness absence.
- Conduct a return-to-work interview to discuss the reasons behind the absence and offer support if needed.
How can employers prevent these situations in future?
To promote positive attendance and cooperation during HR processes, and proactively reduce the likelihood that employees will go off sick as an avoidance tactic, employers should consider implementing the following strategies:
- Foster a supportive workplace culture. Cultivate a work environment that encourages open communication, transparency, and fairness. Employees are more likely to cooperate with HR processes when they trust that their views and concerns will be heard and addressed.
- Provide resources. Acknowledging the impact of stress and anxiety during HR processes and offering support services (such as counseling, employee assistance programs, or access to mental health resources) can help employees cope with the challenges they face during these times and reduce the need to resort to sick leave as a means of escape.
- Communicate HR procedures clearly. Ensure that employees fully understand the disciplinary, performance management, and grievance procedures through a well-defined HR policy. Clear communication of these processes, their purpose, and the expectations of all parties involved will help to reduce uncertainty and dispel misconceptions and rumors.
- Apply your procedures consistently and fairly. By demonstrating that HR processes are conducted consistently and objectively, and always following established procedures and guidelines, employees are more likely to perceive the process as unbiased and fair, and therefore more likely to trust the process rather than run from it.
- Encourage employee input. HR processes should be a two-way street. Providing opportunities for employees to express their concerns, present their perspectives, and have their voices heard during the process can help to alleviate feelings of vulnerability and defensiveness.
- Be clear about the consequences. Clearly communicating the potential consequences of abusing sick leave or engaging in dishonest practices can also deter employees from attempting to manipulate the system.
- Don’t let things drag on. It’s important to conduct HR processes promptly and efficiently without unnecessary delays. A well-structured and timely process reduces the temptation for employees to exploit sick leave as a means to delay the inevitable.
Keeping an HR process on the rails when an employee goes off sick is no easy task. As such, adopting a proactive approach is essential.
By understanding what motivates employees to go off sick and addressing these issues through the above strategies, employers can strike a balance between organisational needs and employee wellbeing, create a healthy work environment where employees are motivated to actively engage with HR processes, and ensure HR matters can be addressed without unnecessary complications.
Advice and support around sickness absence
Dealing with a sickness absence dilemma you’re not sure how to solve? Need Occupational Health intervention to facilitate a return to work? Or just want to get on the front foot through a solid sickness absence policy and manager training?
Whether you’re facing an immediate issue or just want to improve the way your organisation manages these matters, WorkNest have a range of solutions designed to help you maximise attendance and promote a more productive workplace.
Don’t wait for absences to escalate. For expert advice and support, get in touch with our team today on 0345 226 8393 or request your free consultation using the button below.