Summer in the cities: managing employee absence
It's been over a month since it was officially declared that the UK is experiencing a heatwave – and it doesn't show any signs of letting up. It will be an unusually dedicated employee who hasn't woken up occasionally wondering if they could get away with a cheeky sick day spent nursing a cold beer, rather than battling their sweaty way into work. But even though businesses may sympathise, the effect on productivity can be alarming – particularly so in the transport sector, where staff shortages lead to increased costs and can mean delayed, overcrowded buses and overheated (in every sense) customers.
So what can managers do to combat unauthorised absence? The answer is a mix of carrot and stick. Simple strategies to increase employees' comfort, such as a lighter summer uniform, providing chilled bottled water and fans and doing what you can to keep workplaces to a reasonable temperature can encourage employees to make the effort to come in. It may even be worth offering staff an opportunity to watch upcoming major sporting events like the Tour de France at work, so that they are less tempted to stay at home. But, whatever you do, some employees will always try to push boundaries, so it's important to have a strategy in place to deal with this.
It is often helpful to have a formal absence management policy whereby persistent short-term absence (as well as long-term absence) triggers a formal meeting with the employee to assess the reasons for their absence. In the absence of an underlying medical reason for the absence, you can require the employee to improve their attendance within a specified (reasonable) time frame. An employee who fails to improve may be subjected to disciplinary action (and ultimately dismissal). If you already have such a policy in place, summer may be a good time to highlight it to employees.
Another potential avenue is disciplinary action against employees who call in sick when there's nothing wrong with them. But there are some health warnings around this. It can be very difficult to prove that an employee is lying about short-term absence, as GPs generally will not provide a 'fit note' confirming the employee is unfit for work until the absence has lasted at least a week. Social media can often fuel suspicions of an employee's dishonesty – an employee who calls in sick and then posts photos of themselves at Wimbledon is playing a dangerous game – but it may also be misleading: employees may post photos which are several days old or are of someone else. Although dismissal is justified in cases of proven dishonesty, businesses need to investigate carefully and give the employee a chance to explain, or risk being faced with a claim for unfair dismissal.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution – apart from crossing your fingers for a cool spell.
If you would like any further information, please contact Employment Partner Sam Murray-Hinde.
This article first appeared in Routeone 1 August 2018.