Employers should avoid taking a hard line when faced with staff who refuse to return to the workplace as the country continues to emerge from the Coronavirus lockdown.
That’s the advice from leading Midlands law firm Wright Hassall, which has drawn up workforce guidance for businesses as they prepare to welcome back their employees from one of the most unprecedented periods of interruption that businesses have ever experienced.
Among the advice is how to deal with the dilemma of employees who are still uncomfortable about returning to the workplace through fear of contracting COVID-19 either on their way to work or on business premises.
Tina Chander, Head of Employment Law at Leamington-based Wright Hassall, has said that businesses should prepare in advance for how they are going to respond to any employees who are concerned about returning to their place of work, and has outlined a recommended approach.
She said: “Coronavirus has shaken the country to its core, so it is totally understandable that some people will be nervous about venturing outdoors - be it to the shops or to work - where there is a risk of catching the disease.
“Despite an employer taking all the necessary steps to risk assess the workplace and putting in place appropriate mitigating measures, some employees may still refuse to return to the workplace due to fears about the risk to their health.
“If an employee can perform their duties from home, allowing the employee to continue to do this should be the employer’s first response.
“If this is not possible, the employer needs to take the time to understand the employee’s fears and concerns – talking to the employee about the measures the employer has put in place to protect the health and safety of its workforce may alleviate the employee’s concerns and resolve the issue.
“However, if an employee still refuses to attend the workplace, the employer needs to consider very carefully whether to take disciplinary action for misconduct based on the employee’s refusal to follow a reasonable management instruction to attend work, and whether it would be viewed as discrimination to refuse to pay the employee for the period of ‘unauthorised’ absence.
“Employers need to remember that a staff member’s refusal to attend work on the basis that they believe they are at risk of imminent danger, could afford them protection from being dismissed, regardless of their length of service. Childcare issues may also provide grounds for refusal (although that will depend on individual circumstances), as it is not yet certain that all children will able to return to school in September, so caution needs to be exercised before embarking on a disciplinary process.”