What if someone refuses to work during coronavirus?

Apr 9, 2020 | Good Management

Many organisations are obviously continuing to operate at the moment, either because they are key industries, or suppliers to key industries, or because they are able to keep operating, haven’t been told to shut down and don’t at present need to.

But there is lots of concern among workers about the spread of coronavirus so there are occasions where you may have staff who are worried about coming into work, or even refusing to come into work. But how do you address this?

Normally of course if someone refuses to come into work, you would consider this to be a conduct issue and might address it with a disciplinary hearing. But in the current climate the cause of their refusal to attend may be a health and safety reason, which means you need to be very careful.

If you dismiss someone for either raising a health and safety concern, or for refusing to work or leaving the workplace because they reasonably believe that there is a serious and imminent danger to them, this would be an automatically unfair dismissal. That isn’t something that comes up particularly frequently for most small businesses, but during the coronavirus crisis it has become more potentially relevant.

So if someone refuses to attend work there are several steps you need to take:

  1. Understand their concerns. Ask them what they are particularly worried about and see if this can be addressed.
  2. Consider whether it is at all possible for them to work at home.
  3. Find out whether they are in the ‘shielding’ group, or particularly vulnerable themselves, or perhaps living with very vulnerable people.
  4. Make sure you have definitely taken the necessary steps to protect them in the workplace, including enabling social distancing, taking proper adequate hygiene measures, providing hand sanitiser, extra breaks for handwashing and extra cleaning.

If you are sure you have done all this and your employee still refuses to attend work, you may then need to consider looking at disciplinary proceedings, bearing in mind that this is challenging at the moment due to social distancing.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that mental health concerns are very real at the moment, and some people do have more of a tendency to become anxious during times of crisis. So unless you have reason to believe their reaction is unreasonable or is an attempt to seek an opportunity to stay at home, or hoping to be ‘furloughed’ on 80% of their pay instead, disciplinary action may be a bit harsh, and offering unpaid leave instead could be an option.


If you’d like some advice on handling difficult employee problems during a lockdown, do get in touch.