How to conduct a return to work interview

A return to work interview should be carried out as part of an organisation’s absence management policy. However, if this is not covered in your organisation’s handbook, here is some guidance on what a return to work interview is supposed to achieve and how to conduct an interview successfully.

Let’s just remind ourselves of the purpose of return to work interviews. They are an important part of effective absence management and encourage early intervention in potentially difficult situations. They also promote open communication and help to establish work plans and priorities when the employee returns to work.

Depending on your organisation the interview may be formal or informal. Whichever approach you use, a record should be kept of the interview however brief. These are the key points which should be covered:-

  • Welcome employee back to work
  • Ensure that the employee is fully fit to return to work
  • Establish the reasons for absence and what treatment has been sought
  • Discuss whether any causes arise from work
  • Find out if there is anything work can do
  • Check any paperwork regarding absence ie FitNote, occupational health reports, raise any concerns if there are discrepancies and give the employee the opportunity to explain
  • Bring the employee up to-date with news from the team, department and organisation as a whole
  • Establish priorities and work plan
  • Agree any reasonable adjustments

All of these points sound quite straightforward and simple, and in some cases the interview will turn out this way. However here are some ideas to deal with more difficult discussions, for example if the absence was stress related:-

How to set up the interview

  • Make sure that the employee is given warning of the interview so that it is not sprung on them. They need to know the time and place for the meeting, and it should be before they return to their workstation.
  • The interview should be held in private and given sufficient time for any discussions to be had. Holding the conversation in the middle of a busy office or on the way to an important meeting is not appropriate and will not help achieve the aims.
  • The boundaries for confidentiality need to be set and understood by the employee. For instance it maybe that the manager will report back to HR but will not tell colleagues about what is said.

Potential difficulty of return to work interviews after stress related absence

If an employee has been absent from work due to a stress related illness, the manager conducting the interview must take into account the emotions that the employee may have. These may include shame and embarrassment, and may mean that the employee is reluctant to talk about their absence. The manager will need to take time to establish understanding and build the trust of the employee.

Approach to be used during interview

  • Be supportive
  • Listen – stop talking, allow time for the employee to think and speak
  • Concentrate on fact-finding
  • Remain open-minded
  • Ask questions without being too intrusive

If a manager has any grounds on which reasonably to conclude that the employee’s absence was not genuinely for the reason given, the manager should put the evidence to the employee directly so that he or she has the opportunity to respond and provide an explanation.

This post was written by Charlie Damonsing of CLAssociates. CLAssociates specialises in helping businesses manage stress in the workplace, providing consultancy, training and 1-2-1 support. For further details please contact Charlie on 0771 559 6487.