UK: Employers Beware: What To Do If You Discover Your Employees Are At Glastonbury After Calling In Sick

Last Updated: 10 July 2013
Article by Kevin Poulter

It's time for Glastonbury again.  With the campsite gates opening earlier year on year, the rush for prime camping spots has become even more frenzied.  A festival that used to last just a weekend has now become a week-long marathon and encourages ticket holders to take more holiday time off work.  But what if this is frowned upon by your boss?  Jobs where temporary cover is difficult to find at short notice or where it is not permitted at certain times of the year means that employees are having to find novel excuses as to why they are not in the workplace.

Teachers, doctors, emergency and seasonal workers may be subject to contracts and policies which prevent them from taking holiday at specific times, such as term time or when demand is high.  But what happens when someone calls in at short notice feigning illness and later appears on the BBC's extensive (and well publicised) TV, internet and radio coverage?  Can someone be dismissed for just having a good time?

Social media: friend or foe?

It's not just the threat of an unexpected TV appearance that should make employees think twice before skipping work.  Over the past few years, social media has become the go to place for sharing comments, opinions, locations and photos. After a pint of cider or two, the opportunity to tell everyone at home or in the office what a great time you are having may be too much to resist.  All too often where social media is concerned, common sense and good judgment fly out of the window.  That's fine, until you realise that your boss follows you on Twitter or one of your disgruntled colleagues and Facebook 'friends' who has been left to pick up the slack in your absence passes the information on to your manager.  Once the cover is blown it is likely that, at the very least, an awkward conversation will follow.  At worst, dismissal is a real possibility.

Even when you think you have got away with it, there remains a serious risk that you may still be caught out.  Tagging photos on social media sites, appearances in newspapers or website reviews can all alert an employer to the real reason why you returned to work unshaven, tanned and wearing a grubby wristband.

Last year, a survey by Skyscanner found that almost one in four UK employees have lied to their boss and colleagues in order to get their time off approved. Excuses ranged from 'pulling a sickie' (7%) faking a family emergency (4%), and pretending a holiday was really a honeymoon (1%).  One respondent even admitted to 'eating a handful of shampoo so I'd be sick in the office.'  A less successful tactic at this time of the year (and not recommended) is claiming to be snowed in, but stranger things have happened. 

The risks

Even where the reason for a holiday may be a genuine one, if an employee is not upfront and honest with his or her employer, there may still be an allegation of dishonesty.  That was certainly true for Paul Marshallsea who was filmed wrestling a shark away from children in Australia whilst absent from his charity job in Wales because of stress. When the 'hero's' footage went viral and made headlines across the world, his employer took immediate action and dismissed Mr Marshallsea (and his wife who worked for the same charity and had also been on sick leave at the same time).  The reason given for the dismissal was the breakdown in trust and confidence the employer had in the Marshallseas' to perform their duties. 

As well as making you unpopular with your colleagues, lying to your employer is a clear misconduct which will usually lead to disciplinary action.  If an employee has been engaged for more than 2 years, there should be a formal investigation and consideration of the facts and relevant surrounding circumstances.  An employee should be presented with the proof and given the opportunity to clarify the situation.  If the employer remains unhappy with the explanation and there is a genuine and reasonable belief that the alleged misconduct has occurred will the reason for dismissal will be fair. 

However if an employer does have clear evidence that the reason for the time off is not in fact genuine, then they are within their rights to provide the proof to the employee and ask them to explain the situation.  If the employer is unhappy with the explanation provided by the employee they could then refuse to authorise the absence. Depending on the seriousness of the matter, an employer could also proceed to take formal disciplinary action against a delinquent employee.

If an employer refuses to allow time off, it should be backed up with good reasons and the process should always be transparent.  If it is necessary for the fulfilment of an employee's duties for them to attend work at specific times, such as term time, this should be made clear in advance.  However, where there are genuine and exceptional circumstances, an employer should fairly and reasonably exercise its discretion.

Lying to your employer will rarely be justifiable. So, if you receive a last minute invitation to go on holiday, to a festival or just want to watch Wimbledon, think hard before you put on a fake cough and phone your boss to explain your absence.  You never know who might be unwittingly reporting your movements.

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