Employees who take time off with stress to avoid a disciplinary at work are, in effect, making the process and situation more difficult for themselves and not just the employer. A disciplinary investigation can be a daunting process. They may feel aggrieved that the company considers their behaviour to amount to misconduct or they may believe their future employment is at risk. If you feel you have a strong case against an employee, you may well want to proceed as quickly as reasonably possible to resolve the matter and move on.
However, for employees who take time off with stress to avoid a disciplinary at work, there maybe little incentive to engage with the process, especially if the employee is suspended on full pay until a decision is reached. This can result in what appears to be attempts by the employee to time waste with requests to postpone proceedings through to last minute call-offs or the submission of a fit note.
An employer is entitled to require a suspended employee to attend disciplinary meetings during normal working hours, but it is good practice to reschedule a hearing at least once if the employee provides a good reason for the postponement. This does not mean you are under an obligation to postpone disciplinary proceedings indefinitely, you can proceed with a hearing in the employee’s absence if it is reasonable to do so and the employee has been warned that the hearing will go ahead regardless of their attendance. Ensure you have an internal paper trail documenting the consideration you gave to any postponement request and a reason for continuing in the employee’s absence. This will be required in the event of a claim.
Where employees who take time off with stress to avoid a disciplinary, you may want to make it clear that the employee’s absence does not change the fact that he or she remains suspended pending a disciplinary investigation and consideration be taken as to whether the absence can be reasonably accommodated by a short postponement. Where the absence appears likely to last for a longer term, you may look at clarifying the situation. Being unfit for work does not necessarily mean unfit to participate in a disciplinary process: you, as the employer may question the employee, their GP and/or occupational health to determine whether this is the case. You can also look to make reasonable adjustments to the process, such as permitting the employee to provide written submissions rather than attending a hearing in person, to move the process forward despite the employee’s ill health.
Where the employee is genuinely unable to engage with the process in any way, you need to determine whether or not it is reasonable to continue in the absence of the employee. Consideration will need to be given to the importance of having the matter resolved, the impact on any other individual involved and the potential impact to the business of the employee’s continuing absence/suspension. Documentation of these considerations will be important.
If the alleged misconduct is sufficiently serious, or if you feel that the relationship with the employee has irreparably broken down, there are alternative solutions to any problem. Potentially employees who use a stress diagnosis to avoid disciplinary investigations or hearings do not help themselves. It is a well known fact that the longer an employee is signed off by the doctor, the harder it becomes for them to return to work and ‘face the music’, which was probably a major cause of their anxiety and stress in the first place.
We can now provide on-site mentoring services designed to resolve workplace conflicts between employees who have previously worked well together. For further details email Ali Penney on firstname.lastname@example.org
Metis HR is a professional HR Consultancy based in the North West of England supporting clients across the country. We specialise in providing outsourced HR services to small and medium-sized businesses. Call us now on 01706 565332 to discuss how we may help you.