UK organisations still rank return to work interviews among the most popular and effective methods for managing absence — both short-term and long-term (CIPD Absence Management Survey 2015).

Put simply, a return-to-work interview get results. Here’s how to use them, and why.

Benefits of conducting return to work interviews


Return-to-work interviews help to reduce unacceptable short-term absence. They send a clear message that absence is actively managed at your workplace. And by asking employees to explain their absence face-to-face, they also deter dishonesty.

When managing long-term absence, return-to-work interviews also help you support employee rehabilitation. They present an opportunity to ask about the employee’s situation, assess their needs, and plan a phased return to work where required. Properly supporting long-term-absent employees is a vital step in their transition back to work.

Return-to-work interviews also allow you to collect data for use in other absence management methods, such as trigger mechanisms, risk assessments, and occupational health involvement.

Carrying out return-to-work interviews


A return-to-work interview will normally be part of your organisation’s absence management policy. Most companies that use return-to-work interviews conduct them after every absence, on the day the employee returns to work. Interviews are usually conducted by the employee’s line manager.

To ensure proper record keeping and fair, equal treatment for all employees, you should use a standardised form for all interviews.

A typical schedule will include:

  • Welcoming the employee back to work
  • Updating the employee on anything they missed during their absence
  • Asking about the employee’s health and reason for absence
  • Discussing any work-related or other issues that may have contributed to the absence
  • Explaining any consequences of the absence, in line with your company policy
  • Discussing what measures can be taken to prevent future absences, if relevant

Interviews should be held in a private room. Personal data you collect as part of your records must be kept confidential, in line with the Data Protection Act.

Line managers need skills and sensitivity


Even with a well-designed interview form, the effectiveness of any employee return-to-work interview depends on the skills and attitude of the line manager who carries it out. It’s absolutely essential that interviews are professional and sensitive, not invasive or judgemental.

Line managers should have up-to-date knowledge of your organisation’s absence policy, as well as relevant employment laws such as the Equality Act 2010. Some managers might need training to develop their people skills. Make sure your return-to-work interviews don’t contribute to discrimination against employees.

The line manager should also prepare for each interview by:

  • Gathering relevant information, including the absence management policy and the employee’s absence data
  • Identifying and being ready to discuss problematic trends in the employee’s attendance
  • Being ready to offer any support available to the employee

At the end of the interview, both the line manager and employee should sign and date the form — so that statements given cannot be disputed later.

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