Risky Responses to Family Emergencies

By February 25, 2013November 18th, 2019Absence

As we emerge from the Half Term holiday, many working parents may be breathing a sigh of relief to return to work and get home life back to normal.

But as parents and employers are only too aware, a family crisis can occur at any time and ‘normal life’ doesn’t necessarily stay normal for very long.  When a family emergency does crop up, work commitments will quite naturally take second place and as an employer, it’s important to make sure you and your managers know how to respond appropriately, however inconvenient the timing might be.

The law is very clear that the amount of disruption caused to a business by the time off is not a relevant factor; employers need to have measures in place to make sure they can cope with unexpected absences.

Employees are entitled to take a ‘reasonable’ amount of unpaid time off to deal with unexpected emergencies relating to a dependant.  The definition of dependant is quite wide and goes much further than an employee’s children.  In our experience, however, it is emergencies relating to sick children that our client companies find themselves dealing with most often.

Employees are not only entitled to request time off to deal with the emergency but they are also protected to ensure that they don’t suffer any detriment for having asked for the time off or taken the time off.  The detriment might be something very obvious such as a dismissal i.e. for having had too many emergencies in the space of a year – but there are many more less obvious actions a manager might take that would also be classed as a detriment.  For example, if an employee were passed over for promotion, a pay review, a training opportunity etc. because of the amount of time they had taken off work due to family commitments, these would also be classed as detriments.

In a recent case, an employer was required to pay £1000 compensation to an employee just for issuing a letter of caution about the amount of time off she had taken in the space of a year.  She had taken 7 days over 6 separate occasions and the employer used its informal caution process to make her aware that it found her attendance to be unsatisfactory.  According to the Tribunal, this letter in itself was classed as a ‘detriment’. 

The cautionary tale arising from this case is that although an employee is only entitled to take a ‘reasonable’ amount of time off to deal with each emergency, there is no limit on the number of emergencies an employee might experience and the impact of their absences on the business is not a relevant factor.  If a manager becomes concerned about the number of emergencies that are arising in a particular employee’s life, proceed with caution!  An informal conversation that alerts the employee to the manager’s concerns is always going to be the best starting point and is also an opportunity to explore whether the employee has any other options that could be put into place to help out with the next emergency that may arise such as friends or family that could help out.

It is also an opportunity to look at alternative measures that may be needed within the team, department or business to minimise the impact of the absences when they do occur.  After all, this is the one aspect of the scenario that an employer CAN do something about.

Has your company come up with ways to mitigate the impact of unexpected absences?  If so, we would be very interested to hear what measures you’ve put in place and how these have helped balance your employees family commitments with the pressures of work.

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