UK: Slippery People: Staff Management Issues

Last Updated: 27 August 2007

Keeping your employees happy, fairly rewarded and at work can sometimes pose tricky problems in the workplace. Rachel Stone tackles some common scenarios.

What do you do if a member of staff starts to take lots of self-certified sick days which last just a couple of days at a time? How do you deal with allegations of bullying from a new employee? What’s the best way to reward a member of staff who is covering for a colleague on long-term sick leave? Regardless of the size of your company, these issues are surprisingly common. We look at some practical solutions.

The persistent ‘sickie’

There are many reasons for short-term absence. If an employee persistently takes self-certified sick days, it’s important to establish whether it’s genuine sickness or if he/she is taking unauthorised time off for other reasons.

Home or relationship difficulties, stress, work overload and the demands of caring for a family or an elderly parent can all result in an increase in absence levels. Start by reviewing the absences and look for patterns, for example, particular days of the week or time off around bank holidays.

When a staff member comes back to work after such an absence (even just for one day), immediately arrange a return-to-work interview. This is a good chance to confirm the reasons for the absence and find out if any support is needed. Find out if there are underlying problems at home or work, and whether the employee has seen a doctor or is receiving treatment.

All the evidence suggests that following up, for example, using return-to-work interviews, has the greatest impact on absence levels compared to concepts such as ‘duvet days’.

If absence continues to be a problem, ask your employee to meet you to discuss the issues. Give him/her the right to be accompanied, and openly share any information you have collected about his/ her absences – people are often shocked to find out how much time off they have had.

Point out the difficulties that absences cause for you and the business. You could ask the employee to provide a doctor’s note for all absences, but you will need to pick up the cost of medical certificates. You can also ask the employee to give consent for you to obtain a medical report from his/her general practitioner.

If there are no medical reasons for the absence, meet with your employee to discuss an expected improvement in attendance, a date for review and the consequences if no improvement is made.

Potentially, you could dismiss your employee if the problem continues over time. But be careful to check for underlying health problems or any disability discrimination issues before you come to any decision, and always follow the statutory process properly.

Finally, absence management software is available, which can be beneficial to companies, depending on their size. An absence management facility is often a feature of an integrated HR software solution, such as Smith & Williamson’s own Flexible Solutions platform.

The bullying victim

Suppose a new employee makes allegations of bullying by your staff. How do you deal with these claims?

It doesn’t matter whether you can see any substance to a complaint about bullying, you need to take the matter seriously. As soon as you can, arrange a meeting with the employee to investigate the complaint promptly and sensitively, and give your employee the chance to talk the problem through with you.

Identify instances of alleged bullying and why they are unacceptable. Make detailed notes of any meetings and tell the employee that you will investigate. If required, meet with other staff and make sure you have the full picture before making any decision. Be as open minded as you can. Existing members of a close-knit team may regard unreasonable behaviour within the team as normal, but it may cause considerable distress to a new employee. What’s funny to one person may be deeply offensive to another.

Employees may simply be unaware that their behaviour is unwelcome or inappropriate, and you may be able to sort this out informally. However, it may need to be dealt with formally as a disciplinary matter. If this is the case, your careful investigation and detailed notes will be of great help for those who handle the disciplinary process.

The stand-in

Rewarding a member of staff with a pay rise because he/she is covering for a colleague on long-term sick leave may seem fair and reasonable, but it could cause problems when the colleague returns to work.

Salaries should reflect the market rate for the continued role and performance of an employee. By awarding a pay rise to an employee for taking on additional duties on a temporary basis, you are rewarding the employee permanently for short-term efforts. The higher salary will continue to apply after the employee’s colleague returns to work and he/she has resumed normal duties. Companies in this situation could be exposed to the risk of an equal pay claim if there is inequity between staff doing equivalent work.

A better solution is to recognise additional responsibilities carried out by an employee by offering an ‘acting-up allowance’ for the duration of a colleague’s absence. This rewards and recognises extra effort in a fair and transparent way, and means that pay can revert to normal when the employee’s usual role is resumed. Acting-up allowances can also be useful in other situations, for example, where an employee takes on additional responsibilities when a colleague is on maternity leave.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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