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Managing Staff Absences

An employee's absence from work can cause a serious problem for both the employee and employer so it is important that steps are taken to protect the business in order to avoid disputes or prolonged claims of unfair dismissal. The starting point is to identify the reason why the employee is not at work - is it ill health, a bereavement or something else?

The most common situation is where the employee is unwell. A few days off can usually be dealt with by the employee filling out a sickness self-certification form but if the period of absence is prolonged then the employer needs to follow certain procedures, especially if the employee has the protection against unfair dismissal. In summary, the business should:

  • Investigate the cause and likely length of absence
  • Keep in contact with the unwell employee
  • Obtain medical evidence
  • Meet and consult with the employee regarding the medical evidence
  • Consider reasonable adjustments or alternative employment
  • If dismissal is contemplated then this can be done fairly provided the correct procedures are followed

Often employers are concerned that the employee is not unwell at all. The above procedures are designed to discover whether or not this is the case but if the employee is providing misleading information then a disciplinary procedure for an act of gross misconduct may be the more appropriate course of action.

If the employee is absent due to a bereavement then employers are usually keen to treat this with the appropriate level of compassion. In such circumstances it helps to have clearly drafted policies on how such situations are handled.

Whatever the reason given by the employee for his or her failure to attend work, businesses should also consider the following points:

  • Is the absence disability-related? If so the employee may have a claim of disability discrimination if the situation is not managed properly.
  • Is the absence related to the fact that the employee is pregnant or has childcare responsibilities? As above sex or pregnancy-related discrimination might be an issue.
  • Could the employee have a negligence or personal injury claim? Is the claim likely to be against the business or a third party?
  • What is the employee's entitlement to sick pay? Does he or she have a contractual entitlement to sick pay or just the minimum level of statutory sick pay?
  • Is the employee away from work because of bullying or harassment by other members of staff? If so, then disciplinary and grievance procedures need to be invoked as appropriate.
  • Is there any Permanent Health Insurance in place?
  • Is the employee allowed to take holidays whilst on sick leave?

As with all areas of employment law, it makes sense to obtain legal advice at an early stage to minimise the impact to the business and ensure that the employee's rights are protected. Clearly drafted sickness absence and disciplinary and grievance procedures can be key in resolving or preventing disputes. If you would like to discuss any issues arising out of staff absences, please contact an HR lawyer from our team of specialists. 

If you would like to get in touch with our employment team, please contact us on 020 7234 0200 or

Anthony Purvis

Partner, Employment Law

Anthony offers succinct and practical advice to both businesses and individuals on various issues including redundancies, unfair and wrongful dismissals claims, unlawful discrimination, grievance and disciplinary procedures, TUPE, staff handbooks, contracts of employment, restrictive covenants and their enforcement, settlement agreements and the employment aspects of corporate reorganisations or sales. Read more...

Matthew Hodson 

Associate, Employment Law

Matthew handles all types of employment matters. He represents and advises employees and employers on issues involving whistleblowing, discrimination, redundancies, unfair and wrongful dismissal, TUPE, Working Time Regulations, restrictive covenants and settlement agreements.  Read more...