Return-to-work Interviews

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

A highly successful tool in the effort to reduce absenteeism is the return-to-work interview. It is far more effective than general warnings or occasional clamp-downs which can seem unfair and thus cause resentment. These interviews are simple to carry out but require structure and careful preparation if they are to produce good results.

You are still likely to generate resentment, however, if you are perceived to use the return-to-work interview as essentially a disciplinary measure, therefore you should determine precisely its purpose. Is it your intention to reduce unnecessary absence, check on sick pay entitlement, ensure that employees are fit to return to work, communicate matters that have arisen during their absence, or what? Make your employees fully aware of the purpose and you will do much to obviate bad feeling.

An important consideration is when to conduct a return-to-work interview. Quite commonly they are used only after an employee’s return from sickness absence, but this ignores absence for other reasons, which means that you may have to make a judgment about the reason for absence without proper examination. Also if you carry out a return-to-work interview only if you are not convinced of the reason already given, you clearly will have made some judgment before the interview with a result that the employee will feel threatened and be less open. Ideally therefore carry out an interview following absence for any reason whatsoever, then everyone feels treated equitably.

A return-to-work interview carried out on an employee returning from holiday is in practice a briefing session. You would out of politeness ask how the holiday went, but the interview is an opportunity to explain what has happened during the absence, for example management announcements, changes to working practices. Similarly if the employee had time off to attend a funeral or visit hospital you could ask how things went and enquire whether the employee needed any sort of help. These situations are therefore opportunities for you to show concern and make your employees feel valued. Nevertheless the great value of the return-to-work interview is in determining the validity of an unplanned absence and judging whether payment should be made.

Conduct the interview as soon as possible after the employee returns to work. Carry it out in a private setting and study in advance any relevant papers such as absence records and medical certificates. Ideally have the employee complete a self-certification form in your presence immediately before the interview because this tends to produce more honest responses. The form is a useful basis for the interview. Read out each answer and look at the employee for confirmation and, if appropriate, pose a question such as “You were away three days.” Answer: “Yes.” “But you did not see the doctor?” Answer: “No.” “But if it was not serious enough for you to visit the doctor, why did it keep you of work for three days?” You then have opportunity to explain what should have been done, for example asking to speak to a doctor or nurse or consulting a pharmacist. You can do this without appearing threatening, though you may find it necessary to point out that the absence really should not have been so long, the employee could have taken more effective steps, or could have kept you better informed about the likely length of absence. Certainly if it appears that the illness and consequent absence were genuine, you have opportunity to show real concern

If an employee has persistent short-term absences you may have to arrange for him or her to be given a medical examination to ascertain whether there are underlying problems that have not been detected because, say, the employee does not visit the doctor. In any case you may find it necessary to point out that these regular absences are unacceptable and prevent the employee from carrying out his or her contractual obligations. At times you may find that when employees are faced with their written absence record card their attendance improves either because of the shock of seeing the overall pattern or because they see the writing on the wall.

Carry out return-to-work interviews in a firm but non-accusatory way. Ask questions directly but politely and push for full answers. Remember throughout that your purpose is to reduce the incidence of absences by explaining the difficulties they cause. However if this does not work, then you will have to move to discipline. You will need to continue the discussion until you are able to detect whether the problem is one of health incapability or misconduct – “can’t do” or “won’t do”- and follow the appropriate procedure.

If you can see the benefits of return-to-work interviews, then you will need to train the people who are to carry them out and inform all your employees about their purpose. You should then see significant changes in your absence levels, and also are likely to detect an improvement in employee relations.

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