Luke Watkeys, Business Manager
A cursory Google search for ‘stress during disciplinary’ yields almost 10 million results. It’s a topic everyone has a view on, both employer and employee. Stress seems like the new back ache - managers often don’t believe it because GPs appear to be willing to hand out fit notes like sweets so that employees can avoid having to deal with disciplinary matters. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that for many people, facing up to problems at work can be a stressful matter.
It’s not uncommon for people to be signed off sick with work-related stress for up to one or two months. This leaves the employer in a tricky situation; should they continue the process regardless? Or alternatively wait until the employee has fully recovered? Surely there is there a better option?
> Firstly, a side ‘note’. It is worth mentioning that there are websites out there where people can purchase fake fit notes. Whilst it is an important principle in people management not to directly question the legitimacy of an employee sickness unless you have clear evidence to substantiate this, if you are in any doubt about the provenance of a fit note, call the GP surgery provided at the top of the note to verify it.
If you are satisfied that the fit note is genuine, the next step is to reschedule the hearing and seek, with the employee’s consent, an independent medical opinion from an Occupational Health (OH) practitioner. OH save you ‘playing doctor’- they are fully qualified in the interface between work and health and are in the best position to advise on the best way to proceed. In your referral, consider including information along these lines:
“We employ Employee A who was invited to attend a disciplinary hearing on [date] but subsequently informed us that they would be unable to attend due to sickness absence. In view of this, we have postponed the disciplinary hearing to a later date.
Employee A has been absent from work due to illness since [date]. It is in the interests of both parties for the disciplinary hearing to take place, and for this matter to be resolved, as soon as possible whilst the facts are still fresh in everyone’s minds and to prevent any additional stress and anxiety for Employee A. Therefore, we would like you to advise us:
· Would the employee be fit to attend any formal or informal meeting that is required in line with our procedures?
· If not what reasonable adjustments could we make to meet or consult with the employee under our procedures, e.g. holding the meeting at their own home?
At the same time, write to the employee with a rescheduled date for the hearing. Explain in this letter that they are required to visit OH on the agreed date in order to assess their fitness to attend the rescheduled hearing. Outline that if a) they do not attend the OH appointment for any reason; or b) they do attend the OH, are confirmed fit to attend the hearing and then subsequently fail to attend, the hearing will then be heard in their absence, and they will be able to send representations via either a trade union representative, a work colleague of their choice, or in writing.
Most experienced OH practitioners will acknowledge that if a looming disciplinary hearing is the cause of stress, it is better to face the music rather than avoid it. They may also make recommendations on adjustments (e.g. holding the meeting at a neutral venue or giving them time in the meeting to digest the discussions fully). Be as flexible as possible and remember that it is better to follow these recommendations if it means concluding what can be a very difficult situation.
If you have to face the much less common situation whereby Employee A attends the OH appointment and the advice is that they are not in a position to attend the hearing then you will have to deal with it on the employee’s return. If this is the outcome it is worth dropping the employee a line to confirm that you will be following things through on their return to work, so that they do not think that the disciplinary matters will be overlooked or forgotten about.
If the employee is persistently unwilling to attend a hearing, the ACAS Code says that you can make a decision on the evidence available in their absence. However, at least two no-shows are needed to go down this route. If therefore despite a green light from the OH along with all your hard work in rescheduling and supporting the employee they decide not to attend, ensure that detailed notes are taken of the hearing. Finally, don’t forget to always offer the right of appeal.
If this classic case ever happens to you, take our sage advice and we hope it reduces your stress!