Last year Kate gave a talk to a group of managers about how to manage attendance in a practical and robust way. After the talk, a member of the audience came up and asked if she could help him with a problem. John (not his real name) works for a small company. Several years before, a TUPE transfer had taken place which had transferred a number of former public sector workers to their business.
As part of the transfer they had inherited Maria. Maria, a union member, was a good worker some of the time, but she could be pretty aggressive in her language. Colleagues were rather scared of her and several complaints of bullying had been made against her. Upon investigation, these complaints were discovered to be well-founded; Maria responded by going off sick with stress.
Weeks gave way to months and Maria did not return to work. She refused to see her own manager or the HR manager, nor would she allow anyone from the Company to visit her. Indeed, she suggested that the company’s efforts to see her were making her more stressed and ill.
John didn’t know how to break the stalemate. Kate started by drafting a letter for John to send to Maria. The letter referred to the length of time of Maria’s absence pointing out that it was a matter of considerable concern that despite a number of efforts she had steadfastly refused to correspond or meet with the company. The letter said that the company had tried several times to meet with her to discuss her health, understand the prognosis, what her medical advisors were saying and to establish what reasonable adjustments we could make to support her return to work. We clearly indicated that we were more than happy to travel to her home or to a neutral location close to her home to discuss the issues.
Maria had made it clear that she wouldn’t talk to company managers, so the letter said that they had arranged for an external HR advisor (Kate),to meet with her to have an informal chat about her health and to ascertain what further could be done to help her.
The letter was sent and Kate made the phone call. Maria said that she would see what her union rep, Albert, thought about it. Kate said that while she was more than happy for Maria to be supported by her rep, of course as it was an informal welfare meeting, there would be no right to be accompanied, so Albert’s role would be to support her, but as a silent witness. Ten minutes later Kate’s phone rang again. Albert expressed himself as willing to attend. When reminded that his role would be as a silent witness because it was an informal meeting, Albert was not happy and expressed his view at considerable length. He said that he felt that Maria needed him because she was so stressed. Kate said that she quite understood his concerns, but neither Albert nor Kate could make that judgement because neither were medically qualified. However, if Albert felt there was an issue we would fully brief the doctor and get some guidance. Eventually, Albert rang off saying darkly that he would be in touch with the Regional Coordinator. Kate (all amiability) agreed that he should do so.
Shortly after that John received an email, saying that Albert did not feel that he could be part of a process which refused to allow him to do his job. Instead he suggested we should carry on as before i.e. doing nothing. Our reply thanked Albert for his input thus far, politely rejected his idea, pointed out the approved legal process for sick employees (which we proposed to follow),indicated that the company fully understood his difficulties and that we would tell Maria that he felt unable to attend. Kate’s letter to Maria was as follows:
You may be aware that Albert has written to me declaring very clearly that he feels unable to support the process we have decided to adopt. Since the process is one approved by the courts, we feel that it is not really appropriate for him to criticise it. Moreover, since this is an informal welfare meeting, it is not an area where he officially has any right to participate, although we have been more than happy to accommodate him thus far.
That being the case, we have written to him thanking him for his contribution, but he will no longer be included in the discussion, unless he feels able to support it in a constructive way.I confess that I don’t understand why this has become such an issue. Nothing in the conversations so far has really explained it.
Please accept my assurances that you have nothing to fear. We simply want to understand through an informal conversation with you how matters stand and to work with you to promote your recovery. Carrying out a welfare meeting with an employee who has been unwell for some time is purely standard practice. In following this process you are in no way being treated differently from any other sick employee would be.
The doctor confirmed that Maria was fit to attend the meeting and a date was set. Albert ungrit his teeth and somewhat grumpily agreed to attend the meeting, albeit as a silent witness. However, Albert and Maria refused to meet Kate (whom they rightly suspected of painting them neatly into a corner) and agreed to meet John after all... John said afterwards that he had never seen Albert so quiet! And so the deadlock was unlocked. Predictably, shortly after this episode, Maria asked if the company would be prepared to consider an exit package for her. They were delighted to consider her request and agreed a very reasonable deal, which was then compromised.
The moral of this story is that tactics are everything. Get it right.
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