What can you do if someone refuses to engage with a long-term absence process?

It is not at all uncommon for someone who is on long-term sick leave to show reluctance to engage with any kind of ‘process’ conducted by the employer. It might be about a process seeking medical advice about fitness to work, return to work options and adjustments, or it might be a reluctance to attend meetings to discuss the absence, or even telephone calls.

People are often very worried about where these processes will lead, and can also find the prospect intimidating, even more so because of being away from the workplace and work-related interactions. These 7 tips should all help ‘unblock’ the situation and get things moving again, towards resolving the situation.

 

1. Understand what the concern is

Depending on the circumstances, nature of the medical condition involved, and other factors, the reason the person is reluctant to engage might vary. Some concerns you might struggle to address, but other barriers could be removed fairly easily if you understand the nature of them.

Personnel involved in the process might be a concern, for example, particularly if the condition is work-related stress. Moving management of the process to another individual could get the ball rolling again.

Getting someone to express exactly what they are worried about in specific terms will help you know how to address it if that is possible, or at least what language to use and priorities to focus on when reassuring them. Perhaps the most common reason for resistance is a perception on the employee’s part that whatever the employer is trying to do is for nefarious reasons rather than for the employee’s benefit.

Obviously trying to claim that it is all completely for the employee’s benefit alone is going to risk you losing credibility, but any Occupational Health involvement or meetings to discuss absence are genuinely for both parties’ benefit. Finding out if there are reasonable adjustments that would enable the employee to return to work is a good thing. Finding out whether there is any other support they require is a good thing, and expressing those things will help show that you do actually want them to come back, reducing the ‘niggle’ many long term absentees have.

2. Check the tone of correspondence

It can be easy for someone absent for a long period to ‘catastrophise’ a bit, and be very sensitive to the tone of correspondence from work, looking for signs that you are trying to ‘get rid’ of them. A letter you think is completely neutral might not come across that way.

3. Point out that refusal to engage won’t stop the process continuing

You are not expected to just do nothing – as a business you are allowed to make decisions and address situations that are affecting the organisation. Obviously your preference is to do that in a supportive way, and taking into account your employee’s needs, views and medical condition. But if they refuse to engage with the process you will need to proceed without the crucial information that would enable you to take their needs into account as much as possible.

That might be without OH advice if they are resisting an OH appointment, or it might be without their input if they are refusing to attend a meeting.

4. Ask for advice on fitness to attend meetings

Obviously you want to know if the person is fit to return to work or not, and if so what adjustments are necessary. But they may take advice that they are not fit to work as being advice that they are also not fit to attend meetings and refuse or resist attending on that basis. Make sure that one of the questions you ask OH is around the persons fitness to attend meetings (in person or virtual) and conduct discussions about their employment.

5. Offer them options

If it’s a meeting/hearing you need them to attend, can you offer options in terms of venue? At the workplace doesn’t have to be the only option – it could be done virtually so that they can stay at home. Or you could find a neutral venue. If they are wary about Occupational Health, you could offer the option of a telephone appointment if that’s easier.

6. Consider relaxing the rule about being accompanied

Rather than sticking to the rule that individuals can only be accompanied by a colleague or trade union representative, consider allowing them to be accompanied by a friend or family member instead. You can still be firm about their role and input, but it might encourage them to attend if they otherwise would resist, and would make someone who has not done anything ‘wrong’ (as with a misconduct hearing) feel supported during what is a stressful process.

Practically speaking, if someone has been out of the workplace for some time, they may well not feel able to ask a colleague anyway, and most people don’t have access to a trade union representative either.

7. Offer the option of written submissions

If you cannot get them to attend a meeting and therefore after having tried everything else, need to proceed anyway, you could offer them the option to put anything they wish to have taken into account in a letter instead.

This reduces the risk that they will claim they were not consulted and treated fairly, and will also give you the opportunity to demonstrate that you have considered and addressed all those points before (possibly) taking any decision to dismiss the individual.

 

Any process will advance more quickly and more smoothly if concerns the employees have are addressed, and if they are committed to engaging with it. So it’s worth trying to resolve concerns and ensure a process is conducted with the full cooperation of the employee.

If you can’t achieve that, as long as you have taken reasonable steps to involve them, you can make the decisions your business needs to make, although taking any big decisions like dismissal in circumstances where you’ve struggled to get an employee to engage should always be done extremely cautiously and with professional advice, particularly where (as is commonly the case) a disability is involved.

 

If you would like further advice if an employee refuses to engage with a long-term absence process, do get in touch.