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Can employers check up on absent staff?

by Josef Kafka

Employers walk a fine line between showing a caring attitude and not allowing persistent absenteeism to erode their profitability.

There is a great deal of emphasis these days on being a caring and holistic employer and taking responsibility for the health and wellbeing of your workforce. Which means that when they do take time off sick (or for some sort of domestic upset) you need be compassionate and empathetic. You may well want to check on them to show interest and support too.

However, let’s face it, there are people who “swing the lead”. They fake illnesses to get a day off. They may even act up in the GP’s office to obtain sick notes for stress and similar hard-to-diagnose issues. 

This sort of thing causes an atmosphere of distrust that affects the whole team.

And how do you root out people who are faking illness, without upsetting those who have a genuine need for time off?

Absent staff cost you money

One thing is for certain, no employer can ignore the issue, and it needs to be carefully managed.

A recent report found that absenteeism in UK businesses costs the economy a shocking £18bn. This figure is on an upward trend, leading pundits to predict that by the year 2030 it could result in £26bn worth of lost productivity. cost of absence to uk economy rises to 18 billion

Can you afford to be part of this statistic?


How can you legitimately check on absent staff?

Most employers content themselves with ringing or emailing staff for an update on their condition and requesting a potential return to work date. If worded correctly, this can serve to show a caring attitude and gentle vigilance in equal measure.

One survey in the UK found that 40% of bosses admitted to checking up on staff to make sure their illness is genuine. This included driving past their home, gaining contact with a family member or asking colleagues to verify the problem.

Then, of course, there is the modern way to “spy” on someone surreptitiously. Employers are using social media posts to gain insights into whether staff are genuinely unable to work.

It is surprising how many people ring in with a fake illness only to post selfies hours later at a major sporting event or long weekend vacation! bosses check up on employees who claim to be sick

Steps to take to manage staff absenteeism

The employers’ organisation ACAS offers a wealth of advice on creating clear processes and procedures surrounding this issue.

This includes having a clear system for how staff need to inform the company about their absence; how often they need to check in going forwards; and what evidence they need to support prolonged illness (usually a GP’s note). You may also have levels of classifications for illnesses. For example, if someone pulls a muscle in their leg and is unable to stand, do they still come to work to carry out office duties instead?

Surveillance and observation

What happens if an employer suspects a member of staff of faking illness, but the individual has followed procedures and covered their tracks?

You may want to gather evidence to dismiss them. However, caution is required. If you sack someone who had a genuine issue, you could face a costly tribunal hearing for unfair dismissal.

Employers also need to make sure that any commercial surveillance activities they engage in are compliant with legislation. Ad hoc and ill-informed attempts to gather photographic evidence or do background checks, for example, could put your company in serious trouble.

Covert surveillance of an employee you suspect of any form of misconduct – including faking illness – must not contravene the European Convention on Human Rights (which protects the right of an individual to privacy in their family life).

Nowadays, you also need to be sure any evidence gathering does not impact on the EU General Data Protection Regulation which covers processing personal information unlawfully and unfairly.

Bring in the experts

To manage the delicate nature of checking on absent employees, it makes a great deal of commercial and common sense to bring in expertise.

This helps to illuminate ways to execute both pre-notified employee checks and covert surveillance.

Covert surveillance is justified under the law, in exceptional circumstances. It revolves around whether notifying an employee would jeopardise investigations into their potential misconduct. The Information Commissioner’s Employment practices data protection code outlines the senior management obligations, including impact assessment.

Private investigators who specialise in this field can ensure scrupulous adherence to the proper way of proceeding to gather evidence of employee misconduct.

Equally importantly, their methodology and expertise mean that enquiries can be made without the employee ever knowing they were under investigation. This prevents bad feeling or even civil action if you inadvertently question the validity of a genuine illness or forced absence.

Do you need to know more about how to check for employee misconduct while remaining legally compliant? Call us 24 hours a day at 247 Detectives for a no-obligation chat.

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