Summertime sadness Top tips for avoiding a headache over holidays

June 19, 2014

It’s that time of the year again – when the summertime holiday requests keep rolling in, causing some employers a degree of apprehension. You might be worried about having to manage the numerous holiday requests made at the same time, not all of which you can grant. You might be wondering whether your employees will be calling in sick on a sunny Friday or whether one or two of them might just not show up for work after having too many Pimm’s in the pub. Our practical advice for avoiding the pitfalls of the summer holiday period should help you deal with these issues.

Managing Holiday Requests

As a starting point when managing increased requests for holidays, it is useful to have an idea of your minimum staffing requirements. Once you have figured out how many requests you are able to grant at a time, you can then tackle dealing with the requests. Your first points of reference should be the employment contract and staff handbook. Do they explain or prescribe how holiday requests will be dealt with? If not, then they should be dealt with in a manner that is fair and consistent, for example first-come-first-served. You should avoid dealing with requests in a manner that could be interpreted as discriminatory, for example on grounds of age, sex or religion.

The employment contract and/or staff handbook should also state that the right to take annual leave is subject to approval and that the employer has the right to refuse granting annual leave at times that are inconvenient for the business. You should always ensure that any refused requests have been refused in good faith and on reasonable and objective grounds, which are documented. This will help you justify your decision and reduces the risk of the employee arguing a breach of contract, i.e. a breach of mutual trust and confidence.

Increased Sickness Absence Rates

Some employers start to see an increase in sickness absence rates in the summertime, at the beginning and end of the week or at the beginning and end of pre-booked holidays. If this sounds familiar, you are probably also familiar with the common suspicion that such sickness absences may not be genuine. In these situations it is important not to jump to conclusions.

The staff handbook should state that employees may be asked to attend a return-to-work interview after a period of sickness absence. This will allow you to gather details of the reasons for their absence. At this stage, return-to-work interviews should only be used as a means of monitoring sickness, confirming the facts and reviewing anything the employer can do to help. By gathering this data you might be able to establish patterns of behaviour and, if you have reason to believe that an employee’s sickness absence is non-genuine, you may consider whether an investigation should be carried out, followed possibly by disciplinary action.

Unauthorised Absences

What if an employee just doesn’t turn up for work? As above, you should not jump to conclusions because there may be a reasonable explanation for the employee’s absence. You should check first whether the staff handbook sets out the procedure to be followed in this situation. If there is no procedure in place, and these situations are to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, you should hold a meeting with the employee as soon as he or she has returned to work to find out why he or she was absent. You should gather sufficient information from this meeting to consider whether the absence was due to a reason outside the employee’s control or whether you should undertake an investigation, followed possibly by disciplinary action.

Some relevant factors as to whether disciplinary action would be appropriate include how quickly the employee notified you that he or she will not be able to attend work and his or her explanation for this. For example, where the employee has not contacted you, and simply does not turn up at work and has no good explanation for his or her absence, disciplinary action may be appropriate. On the contrary, if the employee contacted you as soon as practicable and his or her absence is through no fault of his or her own, it may not be reasonable to take disciplinary action. It may be reasonable to treat the absence as additional holiday or unpaid leave instead. Either way, your decision should be justified, consistent and documented.

Practical Tips

There are some practical ways you can reduce the risk of unauthorised absences following pre-booked holidays. The staff handbook should contain a section encouraging employees to allow themselves extra holiday time in case of travel delays, i.e. they should not plan to return to work as soon as they are set to arrive at the airport. It should also discourage employees from planning to return to work when they are likely to still be jet-lagged. This way, you will be less likely to have to deal with unauthorised absences altogether.

If your experience this summer suggests your handbook policy is not clear enough and needs updating, make sure you revamp it before Christmas to ensure that your policy covers the manner in which holiday requests, sickness absences and unauthorised absences will be dealt with. The team from hrlaw@foxwilliams would be pleased to review your existing policy, or to draft a new model policy, if you need some support with this.

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