Dealing with employee absence and office gossip

An employee informs you that they are going to be off work for a period of time for example because of an operation. That employee will be content for you to know what is going on but they may not want other people in the business knowing about their operation. However, it is highly likely that you will be asked by the employee’s colleagues “what is wrong with them?” and “When will they be coming back?”. Some employees will ask these questions about an absentee colleague out of concern but others will do so because they want some gossip, are being nosey or are worried about the prospect of extra work coming their way in their colleague’s absence. Given that you  cannot  disclose the employee’s medical matters without their consent and that you cannot allude to what is happening either, how do you deal with such questions? The first step would be to ask the employee what they want you to tell other people about the absence bearing in mind that questions are going to be asked about that – after all, the employee might not have any objection to their fellow employees knowing what is going on; alternatively, the employee might try and agree a response that you will give to any inquirer bearing in mind that when they return to work, they will initially be fielding calls about their well – being. If however, as they are entitled to do, the employee insists that no one should know why they are going to be absent for a period of time then one way of dealing with inquiring employees is to say that you are waiting for an update but you do not expect the employee to return to work until [date]. These steps also apply to anyone who calls in sick for a day – what they are suffering from is not something that should be divulged around the office: the reason for the absence should be kept confidential unless the employee consents to the reason being shared. Even then, you need to be careful about what you say – the best approach is to say as little as is possible. In summary, you should not discuss the reason for an employee’s sickness absence with their colleagues without the employee’s consent because you could end up in difficulties if you say something in breach of the employee’s confidentiality and/or your comment/s place you (and the employee) in an awkward situation.

If you require any employment advice or representation, whether you are an employer or employee, feel free to contact Alan Davidson for a consultation: 01756 692 869.

Alan Davidson,
Partner, Employment