An employee may be absent because of conflict at work. This absence could either be in the form of sick leave or unauthorised and unexplained. With any type of absence the employee may telephone you to explain what has caused it, or you may have to call the employee instead.
Resolving conflict at work
If you find out that an employee's absence is being caused by a conflict at work, you need to take steps to resolve it.
You may wish to use mediation as a way of resolving the problem. Mediation is a process whereby an independent third party intervenes in a workplace dispute to assist the parties to reach a satisfactory outcome. Mediation is especially suitable when used at the early stages of a problem at work and can be used in any dispute, but is particularly useful in relationship issues. The Labour Relations Agency (LRA) provides a free mediation service.
However, the employee might just tell you that they are affected by depression or stress. If so, you should try to find out - if it's not immediately clear - the underlying cause to determine whether its work related.
With unauthorised absence, the employee may be reluctant to tell you why they are absent, ie they might either avoid giving you an explanation or give you an explanation that you find unconvincing. In either case, you should arrange a return-to-work interview with the employee to find out the underlying cause of their absence. This might initiate a remedial response rather than the disciplinary procedure, depending on the information or facts elicited. Remedial response requires a thorough sustainable approach regarding investigation. It would be subject to possible tribunal cases quoting it as a comparison, regardless of its merits. A sustainable process is necessary each time, all fully recorded.
If the employee continues to take periods of unauthorised absence, you may treat it as a conduct issue and apply your disciplinary procedure (which should include as a minimum the Statutory Dismissal and Dispute Resolution Procedures). You may find that, during a disciplinary hearing, the employee raises a grievance relating to a conflict at work that has ultimately led to their absence. If this happens, you should consider suspending the disciplinary process in order to deal with the grievance. However, if the grievance constitutes the employee's defence to the disciplinary issue, you may find it convenient to deal with both issues concurrently.
Whenever an employee returns to work after a long period of absence, you should hold a return-to-work interview with them.
As part of the discussion, you can:
- welcome the employee back
- check they are well enough to be at work
- update them on any news while they were absent
- ask them about the cause of their absence
You may find that they were absent because of a conflict at work. For example:
- they have an ongoing disagreement with a peer or their manager, which should be fully recorded in case of a tribunal case quoting it later
- they are being bullied or harassed by a colleague, client or customer
- before their absence, you had called them to a meeting on an unrelated disciplinary matter, eg to discuss their performance or conduct
- there is a dispute between groups of workers
- there is a dispute between a group of workers and management over, for example, pay or conditions, which may have already led - or may lead in future - to industrial action
If so, you need to take steps to deal with the conflict. See managing conflict.
If you are already aware that the absence was caused by a conflict at work, you should inform the employee about the steps that you have taken or plan to take to resolve it. They should also have a clear understanding of what may happen if they continue to be absent from work.
Continuing absence during a disciplinary procedure
If you think an employee's continuing absence is itself due to a forthcoming disciplinary hearing and, as a result, they fail to attend it, you should:
- rearrange the date of the meeting
- consider seeking medical advice on an employee's fitness to attend a disciplinary hearing
- warn the employee that, if they fail to attend again without good reason, you could make your decision on the matter in their absence
If the employee repeatedly fails to attend rearranged disciplinary hearings, you need to consider all the facts and come to a reasonable decision on how to proceed.
Considerations may include:
- any rules you have for dealing with failure to attend disciplinary meetings
- the seriousness of the disciplinary issue under consideration
- the employee's disciplinary record (including current warnings), general work record, work experience, position and length of service
- medical opinion on whether the employee is fit to attend the meeting
- how you have dealt with similar cases in the past
- the explanations and reasons for non attendance given by the employee
However, eventually you will be entitled to reach your disciplinary decision in their absence, whether it's a warning, action short of dismissal such as demotion, or even dismissal itself.