Firms warned that bribing workers not to call in sick could backfire

Apr 29 2005 by Nic Paton Print This Article

Following the example of the Royal Mail and rewarding staff with cars or holidays if they manage not to take time off sick could land businesses in legal hot water, an employment lawyer has warned.

Law firm Croner said disgruntled employees could potentially make claims on the basis that they have been treated unfairly merely for exercising their statutory rights to time off sick.

Employers could also open themselves up to discrimination claims on the grounds of disability, sex and even religion, if rewards are given for full attendance without making allowances for legitimate reasons why employees may need to take time off, Croner said.

This week the Royal Mail hit the headlines over a scheme it introduced last August under which workers who did not take time off sick could win a holiday or a car.

As a result, attendance levels have risen by 11 per cent – meaning that 1,000 more workers turned up every day.

Workers who did not take a single day off sick up to the end of January 2005 were automatically entered into a prize draw to win Ford Focus cars or holiday vouchers worth Ł2,000.

Overall sickness absence levels from last August to January fell by one per cent to averaged 5.7 per cent, on the same period a year earlier.

During the period, 37 workers have won a new car, 70 have the holiday vouchers, and 90,000 have secured Ł150 worth of other vouchers.

But while a superficially attractive way of reducing the number of staff pulling "sickies", businesses needed to think carefully consider about how such schemes could disadvantage employees who had no choice but to take time off, warned Croner.

Laura Fleming, Croner HR expert, said: "While Royal Mail's scheme has proved successful for them, incentivising attendance should not be approached flippantly.

"Such a policy needs to be carefully written, and employers, especially those in smaller companies whose HR function may not be as sophisticated, need to make sure any policy is fair to all staff, and should also consider taking professional advice if necessary," she added.

"We advise employers to think carefully about, and make allowances in the scheme rules for all the legitimate reasons why staff might need to take time off," she continued.

Any scheme also needed to make allowances for absence taken, for example, because of reasons relating to a disability.

It needed to address how to account for the number of statutory rights to time off that employees have, such as maternity, adoption, parental and paternity leave; and time off for dependants.

Other factors, such as jury service and time off for public duties, and the risk of a claim that could be created if a sabbatical is granted on religious grounds where the employee consequently suffers a detriment, also needed to be considered.

"Failure to implement a policy which considers the needs of all staff could result in the employer facing a claim at tribunal. With no cap to the damages that could be awarded for discrimination, the financial risk to the business is high," said Fleming.

"The fact that full attendance during an employee's contracted hours is a minimum requirement of any job, an employer may be well advised to consider non-attendance as a disciplinary issue, rather than face the risks of claims through rewarding staff for the basic requirement of turning up," she added.

Employers needed to investigate each case of absence independently and absence management procedures needed to be carefully drawn up to ensure they did not penalise those who had genuine reasons for not coming to work.

"Reducing 'sickies' is always going to be a difficult area for companies and Royal Mail may have found a solution that works for them.

"But our message to employers is not to be hasty in following suit and to consider alternative courses of action, such as rewarding performance instead," said Fleming.