It is a common misconception that employees who are off work on sickness absence must hole themselves up in their home and not venture outside. The notion that, in order to be sick, employees must not be well enough to leave their home is also incorrect. While you and your employees may be frustrated by the circumstances, it is important to proceed with caution and not make any irrational decisions regarding how you will deal with the issue upon their return to work.
How you handle the employee in this circumstance depends on the reason that the employee is off sick and the nature of the work that they perform for you. Not all illnesses which make someone unfit for work will also mean that the employee cannot continue as normal in other parts of their life.
Where the employee tells you that they cannot come into work because they have broken their ankle, and then you see on Facebook that they are dancing on both feet without crutches in a night club, you may be acting reasonably to question the employee’s truthfulness. It would be a similar situation with an employee who claims they have a contagious illness and therefore cannot be in the presence of other people, and are then seen on Instagram hugging people at a party. You should speak to them when they come back to work, tell them what you have found and ask them to provide an explanation. If they cannot, you should deal with it as a disciplinary issue which could result in a warning.
It is vital that you consider the surrounding facts because the employee may have been given a recommendation by their doctor to socialise or to undertake other pastimes that they enjoy. This could be the case if the employee is off sick with depression or anxiety related issues. Just because someone is off with depression does not mean that they should not be seen enjoying themselves.
It is also worthwhile considering that the photos that were taken and uploaded to social media were not taken recently. It is possible that the employee is in fact resting at home, but still using their social networks to communicate. As per the advice above, employers should not take an accusatory approach to questioning an employee’s activities while off sick, as this can cause unnecessary harm to the employer-employee relationship.
Alan Price is employment law director of Peninsula.