Question :
Refusal to return to office in lower levels

Hi, can you advise what are our options if an employee refuses to return (or begrudgingly returns) to the office as we move back into Level 3 and/or 2 or even ad-hoc moving forward decides themselves not to come in? They refused to work from the office before we even entered Level 2 and made it difficult to ensure equal treatment across employees. In some parts it is fair as they have a long-term immuno-suppressed person in their residence (not a dependent) & were not comfortable. While business has been supportive where possible over this past year, we feel it is unreasonable for the role to be based remotely long-term due to the role being both a Manager and Team Leader in small team and the cross-functional nature of the small business (<10 employees), plus we felt that the office environment and seating arrangement are socially distant. Thoughts?

Question submitted 10/04/20 @ 05:27am
Industry: HR & Talent
  • Hi there

    I am not an HR expert in relation to the Law so hesitate to respond to this one.

    Here’s some information that I have found that maybe helpful. I hope.


    Hi there. There must be a lot of fear and distress for someone to refuse to come back to work – and it sounds like you’ve been dealing with it for a while now. Well done for trying to make it work over the past year and being willing to try remote working. I recommend you meet with the employee to request they document the health and safety needs they require to be met to manage their medical condition and be able to work consistently in the office. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to ask for their doctor to write to you with their recommended actions. Once you have the list, you should consider it carefully and see if you could put whatever is required in place to ensure your employee feels safe and comfortable. If not, you may need to take the difficult step of proposing to end their employment if they are unable to perform in the role as required. I strongly recommend you get formal advice from an employment lawyer or an experienced HR consultant to ensure you do the right thing by your employee and you protect your business – before you take the process any further. I wish you luck. Fiona

    Oh sorry – have just re-read your issue and see that it’s a relative, not the employee themselves with the medical condition. On that basis, I think you need to outline to your employee the steps you are taking to ensure they can work safely and protect themselves so that when they go home, they are not likely to transmit anything to their loved one. (There are clear steps that health workers take for instance, to ensure minimum likelihood that they bring bugs into their home.). That could include the process you use to maintain the cleanliness of your office and the facilities you can offer for their self management- like showers, cleaning products, hand sanitiser etc. Ask them if there’s anything else you could reasonably do to make them safe and comfortable. If they won’t return to the office after that, then you’re back to my original advice to taking steps to end their employment. I still encourage you to get advice and follow a formal process. All the best. Fiona

    The advice provided by Fiona is spot on and she has much more experience than myself in this arena. I am also not an employment lawyer and above all I think you should take some legal advice to ensure you know exactly where you stand. Once you have this information it is worth taking into account that your employees will be under increased levels of anxiety at a time like this, so your communication to your team should take this into account. If you cannot speak to your people in person then consider using zoom to help you communicate face to face. I would expect that your team will want to continue working and contribute to the future success of your business, they may just require some extra support during this stressful period. And finally, some people are more productive working remotely, so don’t be afraid to trial new remote work practices, tools such as zoom and Microsoft teams can enable productive collaboration. Good luck. Ollie

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