Employers: Back to work interviews

Back-to-work interviews help to reintegrate staff returning to the workplace. This can include planned absences such as maternity leave or a sabbatical.  The aim is to welcome employees back, brief them on any relevant matters and ensure they are fully prepared to take up their duties again.

The most frequent use of return-to-work (RTW) interviews arises after sickness absence.  UK employers seem to suffer a very high incidence of “chronic Monday-itis”.  Short absences for relatively minor matters form the vast majority of ill health absence, so it’s important to deal with this type of absence rigorously and tactically and that’s what I’ll be focusing on in this article.

Such meetings are one of the most effective tools in the managers’ arsenal of absence management techniques.  The fly in the ointment is that many mangers dislike carrying out RTW meetings and either fail to do them or fail to do them correctly. They say things like, ““HR says I have to do this” or bark out something like, “Good holiday?!”  Often they are so uncomfortable with being ‘pink and fluffy’ that they go through the process staring steadfastly at the toe of their shoe, refusing to engage with the employee.

RTW meetings are only of any real use if they’re carried out properly. This is a matter more of technique than content. Consider the facts in each case (one size doesn’t fit all).  If the employee generally has good attendance (i.e. most workers), the interviewing manager should take the following steps:

  • Welcoming the employee back; look the employee straight in the eye and smile.
  • Check to see that they are OK to work; determine whether he’s taking medication that might have safety implications.
  • Find out whether there are any adjustments we need to consider, brief them on any relevant matters and complete the paperwork.
  • Take the opportunity to thank them for their commitment to the organisation.

Note that where there is an underlying medical reason for the absence the condition may be a disability, so it’s essential to explore what reasonable adjustments can be made to accommodate a return to work.

Where an employee has poor attendance, but there doesn’t appear to be an underlying medical condition linking the absences, it’s a different approach.  The manager should still take steps 1-3 as laid out above.  But the similarity ends there.  In this case ask if there is an underlying medical reason causing the absence.  Express concern about their health and ask what can be done to help them improve their attendance.  Show them their attendance sheet.  In many cases, the employee doesn’t know how much time they have taken and this exercise will be enough to correct the problem.

Ask probing questions, for example, where there’s a pattern ask about it, (“Five of your six days of absence have been on a Monday; that’s rather curious.  What’s happening?”) Wait for an answer.

Where the employee has confirmed that there is no underlying medical reason for absence and there’s nothing you can do to improve his attendance, suggest a target (“You’ve told me there’s no underlying medical reason for your absences and there’s nothing we can do to help you increase your attendance. Given that the average person takes no more than about six or seven days sickness a year, it will be reasonable to agree that you’ll take no more than two days off in the next six months, won’t it?”)

Sometimes the employee aggressively asserts the genuine nature of his illness.  (We call them “screamers”.)  It’s bullying behavior which tries to intimidate a manager into backing off.  The correct answer is to look coolly over your reading glasses and point out that you’re not a doctor, so you can’t comment on the genuine nature of the employee’s illness; but as his manager, you have grave concerns about his poor level of attendance.  You have a duty to explore that with him and do what you can to support him in improving it.

While fair and compliant, the ‘Headmistress approach’ calls the employee to account and takes him slightly outside his comfort zone.  He then has to make a choice as to whether he will meet attendance requirements, leave or be managed out.

This usually does the trick, but where employee doesn’t meet the attendance targets, move to the formal process.

Find out more:

There are some excellent tips on return to work interviews from the University of Sheffield.

This video on return to work interviews explains the process further.

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