It does not just have to be long term sickness, it could be frequent short term absences as well. You cannot just be sued for penalising someone with a fit note – as mentioned a fit note is not something which allows someone to be absent as and when they wish without facing any repercussions. You still have a business to run and eventually you may take action if needed to deal with absences, even if they are backed up by a fit note.
Disciplining or dismissing an employee due to sickness absence is a potentially fair reason under the Employment Rights Act 1996 as it would amount to a capability or even a misconduct issue.
However, to justify it as being fair the employer needs to follow a fair procedure and act reasonably. First and foremost the employer needs to comply with any workplace sickness absence procedures and policies. For example these could list the number or duration of absences before formal action is taken.
In any event, when considering the fairness of the employer's actions, a tribunal would usually look at the following factors:
· Did the employer investigate the nature, extent and likely duration of any illness and consult the employee in the process
· If absences are short-term and intermittent, investigating whether there is any underlying cause (medical or otherwise). If necessary, follow a capability or disciplinary procedure instead, offering practical guidance and assistance, setting timescales for improvement, and giving formal warnings where appropriate. Only continuous absences should threaten dismissal.
· Before deciding to dismiss, consider surrounding circumstances, age and length of service of employee together with action taken in respect of similar situations in the past.
· Consider importance of employee and/or the post occupied to the business, the impact their continued absence is having on the business and the difficulty and cost of continuing to deal with their absence.
· Consider whether the employee could take up alternative employment or whether there are any other options that would avoid the need for dismissal.
Dismissal must always be viewed as a last resort by the employer. Only when it is obvious that the employee cannot continue in their job and that there was nothing else available for them to do would dismissal become a fair option. The courts have held that an important consideration is whether any reasonable employer would have waited longer in the circumstances before dismissing the employee.
It is also important to consider the additional rights someone would have if the condition that is affecting them amounts to a 'disability'. This can have a broad meaning and there is no single list of conditions that amount to a disability under law. Instead, to establish whether a person is disabled, they need to show they satisfy the legal definition of ‘disability’.
The Equality Act 2010 defines a disability as a “physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”.
I will break this definition down:
- Physical or mental impairment – this can include nearly any medical condition;
- Substantial effect – the effect must be more than minor or trivial;
- Long-term - the effect of the impairment must either have lasted or be likely to last for at least 12 months;
- Normal day-to-day activities – these could include anything considered ‘normal’ in a person's normal daily routine (e.g. walking, driving, speaking, eating, washing, etc.)
If a person satisfies the above criteria, they will be classified as being disabled and will have automatic protection against discrimination, which means that they must not be treated unfavourably because of their disability. In addition, their employer would have a duty to make reasonable adjustments if they are likely to be placed at a substantial disadvantage when compared to non-disabled employees.
So in summary, if the employer has not taken time to investigate the true medical position, whether suitable employment was available and generally considered the effects the employee's continued absence would have on the business, any dismissal could potentially be unfair. In the first instance it should be dealt with by issuing warnings for absence and setting timescales for improvement and proceeding with further action only if these are not complied with.