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How to manage redundancy of an employee on long-term sickness absence

Compassionately dealing with an employee who is on long-term sickness leave can be challenging for those who do not have the expertise, and the addition of a redundancy can make it even more complex. However, there are many steps an employer can take to do the 'right thing' by the employee, while protecting the reputation of the company.

First, as with all redundancies, it is critical to determine that there is a legitimate reason for the redundancy. The employee's long-term illness or injury is not a valid reason for making a role redundant.

Once this has been established, one of the most important steps is regular and transparent communication. It’s not always easy to speak about difficult issues such as redundancy with someone who is absent from work due to a disability or illness.

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However, including people in these discussions can improve relationships and make the ultimate goal – managing a smooth transition for the employee out of the role – easier to achieve.

Even if employees are absent from work, some may see the redundancy as an opportunity to move on. All you can do to help them to prepare for this event, including frequent, face-to-face communication and keeping them regularly updated with developments, is a positive and constructive way to manage the redundancy.

Discuss the situation with the person, talk about their skills and abilities, and work with them to identify other potential roles.

Redundancy for many people can be viewed as personal failure. The more an employer can provide by way of an explanation for the reasons and rationale for the redundancy, the easier it will be for the individual to accept, prepare and move on.

If the individual is ready and willing to return to work, even on a gradual basis, you could consider bringing them back in during the period of consultation. This may be something employers initially feel uncomfortable with.

However, there are huge benefits for an individual to work during their period of consultation. The support received from the employer and the experience of being back at work will boost the employee’s confidence, positioning them much more strongly when they look for another job, whether within or outside the company.

Additionally, by allowing the person who knows the job best to do the work, the employer is in a better position to manage down the workload and tie up loose ends prior to the role becoming redundant.

Where the employee can return to work during the consultancy/notice period, putting together a return-to-work plan will help the employee make the move back into the workplace more successful

A return to work plan consists of a return-to-work aim – the 'ultimate goal' such as 'to get back to work full-time or part-time', contact details, return-to-work milestones, a review schedule and a sign-off section to ensure all parties are in agreement to the plan.

Your occupational health provider, the employee's GP or treating physician (with the employee’s permission) and a vocational rehabilitation consultant can all provide helpful return-to-work recommendations for the employee.

A company employee assistance programme (EAP) can be helpful for advice on careers counselling, legal and financial guidance for employees. Some income protection policies provide an EAP service for free, so if you have such a policy in place, make sure you check to see if this is the case for you.

If your company does have the benefit of an income protection policy, it may come with other tools to assist you to manage disability and sickness absence in the workplace. These include access to specialist vocational rehabilitation consultants, self-help material on managing sickness absence and support for line managers.

Finally, always make sure you seek advice and guidance from your legal department. The advice given above will help to compassionately manage the redundancy, but it does not replace your legal requirements in these redundancy situations.

By taking these steps when managing the redundancy of an employee on long-term sickness absence, the employee will have greater confidence to take the step back into the workplace when they are ready, and, as the employer has managed the redundancy with compassion, their reputation is safeguarded. 

Carol Keith is rehabilitation manager, Unum