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Josh Hudson: Suspension at work - the last resort?

Monday 18 June 2018

Josh Hudson, Conciliator at Acas discusses suspension at work and the launch of Acas' new guidance.

Josh Hudson

Josh is a Conciliator at Acas.

"Suspended pending investigation" has a familiar ring to it. Someone at work is suspected or accused of doing something pretty bad and they are sent home while the facts can be established. Makes sense?

Yes and no.

While there are grounds for suspension - such as serious allegations of gross misconduct - my experience is that this sanction is too often used as a knee jerk reaction rather than as a final resort.

As new Acas guidance states, Suspension should never be an automatic approach for an employer when dealing with a potential disciplinary matter. What many employers overlook is that the 'time out' can have a damaging impact on the employee.    

We all know the saying, 'mud sticks'. Suspension often implies guilt and this can completely undermine the trust and confidence which are integral to the employment relationship. But don't just take my word for it. A recent decision by the High Court has found that suspension is no longer deemed to be a 'neutral act'. That was the spanner thrown into the works by the case of Agoreyo v London Borough of Lambeth.

I've lost count of the number of employees I've spoken to who were suspended from work.  What united most of them was fear of the unknown. Too often reassurance that suspension meant no assumption of guilt did little to relieve stress levels.

So here are a few things to reflect on before considering suspension:

  • We assume everyone knows the difference between right and wrong, but changing behavioural norms and societal values means that there are grey areas about what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour at work. Make sure all staff know how they are expected to treat each other.
  • Disciplinary and grievance processes can be very stressful for all parties and damage mental wellbeing. This can be even worse if an employee is kept in the dark.  Therefore keeping them updated about suspension, its progress and how much longer it may take is important.
  • Suspension may be necessary but how it is handled can affect the whole workforce?  Who picks up the workload when someone is suspended?  How does this affect team morale? Employers should think about the ramifications.
  • Consider all possible alternatives to suspension. In most scenarios an employee could remain in the normal role while an investigation is conducted. If this is not viable, might a temporary change of role or hours be better? Of course, there may be some occasions where it does become necessary to suspend, for example when there is a risk of physical harm.
  • If a decision to suspend is taken, an employer should keep it under constant review. Regular communication with the employee is essential. And don't forget about offering support if/when they come back to work. If the investigation shows no sanction is necessary then don't assume they can just carry on where they left off.  

The best working relationships are built on trust. This can take years to build but take only moments to destroy, so don't give it up easily. When problems do arise in the workplace, employers should take a considered approach. Weigh up the issues and think about whether suspension is necessary or not.

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