It is possible to manage redundancy sensitively – even for people absent because of illness – by considering basic principles and legal requirements. Carole Keith explains.
According to the Office for National Statistics, in the first six months of 2009 more than half a million people were made redundant in the UK. Some of these may already have been off work because of illness or injury. When considering how best to manage such a situation, the overarching principle is to consider what is fair and just for all parties. An employer can “do the right thing” by their employee, while protecting the reputation of their company.
Communicating with absent employees
Consider if an employee is aware of impending redundancies within the company and maintain regular communication.
Transparency is essential. It can sometimes be difficult to have a conversation with someone who is absent from work due to disability or illness, but excluding people from such discussions can damage relationships. Even if employees are absent from work, some may see the redundancy as an opportunity to move on. Helping them prepare – including frequent, face-to-face communication and keeping them updated on developments – is a positive and constructive way to manage the redundancy.
Reason for redundancy
It is critical to determine that there is a legitimate reason for the redundancy – long-term illness or injury is not grounds for redundancy. Talk to the employee about the situation, their skills and abilities, and help to identify other potential roles.
Many people view redundancy as personal failure. The more an employer explains about the reasons and rationale for the redundancy, the easier it will be for the individual to accept and move on.
Is the individual ready to return?
If the employee is ready and willing to return to work, even gradually, consider bringing them back during their consultation period. Support from the employer and the experience of being “back at work” will boost their confidence in the search for another job.
There is also a clear business benefit. By allowing the person who knows the job best to do the work, the employer is in a better position to manage the workload and tie up loose ends prior to redundancy.
The Equality Act
The Equality Act legislates against discrimination against employees – and for the purposes of this article replaces the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) – placing a duty on employers to make reasonable adjustments to prevent a disabled person from being disadvantaged in the workplace, and to ensure their employment practices are not discriminatory.
Changes from the DDA include new rules relating to associative discrimination (discrimination against persons who associate with a person with disability), indirect discrimination (having rules within the company that disadvantage those with disabilities) and others. Consult Acas for further information on this issue.
Putting together a return-to-work plan will facilitate the move back into the workplace when an employee is ready.
This consists of: a return-to-work aim – the “ultimate goal” such as “get back to work full or part time”; contact details of all interested parties; return-to-work goals such as “build up to working a 20-hour week within the first month”, building up duties or selecting a “buddy”; guidelines on implementation and who is responsible for each action.
It should include a review schedule and sign-off section to ensure that all parties agree to the plan. It is often appropriate to plan a return-to-work on reduced hours or in a simplified role. Communication throughout is vital.
Occupational health, whether an internal or external provider, should offer guidance on fitness for work to help the employer determine if the employee is able to return during their consultancy period, or to help them evaluate when they would be ready to return in another role or company.
Employers can seek information from the employee’s GP or treating physician to agree when they may be ready to return to work. You must seek the employee’s permission to write to their doctor to establish fitness levels, planned treatment and specific return-to-work recommendations.
If you have access to a vocational rehabilitation consultant, they may take on planning for the return to work, and will ensure this plan meets the needs of company and employee. They will also provide ongoing support to monitor and progress the plan.
Support for employees
Dealing compassionately with an employee on long-term sickness leave can be challenging, and the addition of a redundancy can make it more complex.
Many organisations have an employee assistance programme (EAP) in place. This provides careers counselling, legal advice and financial guidance for employees.
Some income protection policies provide a free EAP. If your company has a policy, it may come with other tools to assist in managing disability and sickness absence in the workplace, such as access to specialist vocational rehabilitation consultants, self-help material and support for line managers.
Ensure that the vocational rehabilitation consultant is experienced and has a relevant professional background. They should be trained to work with individuals and their employers to identify barriers to them returning to work, and they will develop a graduated return-to-work plan that meets business needs. The consultants are skilled in assisting employers to identify skills and tasks suited to an employee in the event of redeployment.
The Department for Work and Pensions can also help. It has programmes and funding to assist employers, particularly to make adjustments or adaptations in the workplace that may require new equipment. The Access to Work scheme arranges funding for special equipment and fares to work.
Finally, the advice given above will help employers to manage the redundancy of an employee on long-term sickness absence, but it does not replace legal requirements in redundancy situations.
By taking these steps, an employee will have greater confidence to return to the workplace, and if the employer has managed the redundancy with compassion, their reputation is safeguarded.
Carole Keith is a rehabilitation manager at specialist financial protection provider Unum.