Taking time off falsely, whether as sick leave, compassionate leave or otherwise, is clearly misconduct, which would entitle an employer to take disciplinary action, up to dismissal, depending on the severity of the circumstances. However, there are often difficulties establishing when it is “reasonable” for an employer to disbelieve the reason given for the absence. Potential pitfalls for over-hasty and unjustified disciplinary action could include claims of discrimination, unfair or constructive dismissal (depending on the circumstances), and the risk of significant adverse publicity.
Of course, some cases will be clearer cut than others. Take, for example, the recently reported case in the Guardian Online of a social worker who was employed by the Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council.
Rachel Miles started work for the Council in early 2010. Within two weeks, she claimed compassionate leave following her father’s involvement in a car crash and then again when he later died as a result of his injuries. The next month Ms Miles’ mother, apparently overcome by the tragedy, was sectioned under the Mental Health Act, requiring the employee understandably to take further time off work. Hopes of her recovery were however dashed when she succumbed to cancer later the same year, leading to more time off work for the benighted social worker.
As if one person could possibly be faced with more personal tragedy it came in 2011, when first Ms Miles reported that her brother had died, followed shortly by her ex-husband who had hanged himself. In November the same year her aunt and uncle died within seven days of each other. Eight periods of compassionate leave in less than 2 years, a tale so tear-jerking that even Esther Rantzen might hesitate to become involved.
It is not clear at what point the Council’s suspicions about this appallingly tragic sequence of events was first triggered. However, after 66 days of compassionate leave, the employee was eventually confronted. Of course, none of the reasons given for the absences were true. The Tarantino-like cull of relatives was a fiction and all were alive and well, though no doubt faintly puzzled as to how Ms Miles could get so much time off work.
Rather than face almost certain dismissal, Ms Miles resigned. She has subsequently been struck off as a social worker by the Health and Care Professions Council, presumably because she did not turn up to that HCPC meeting, sending in instead a statement including the fundamentally unlikely proposition that she had “no recollection of the events mentioned” and so would have to rely on the “witnesses’ integrity and honesty in reporting these matters to the HCPC hearing”. The HCPC did the same, hence its striking off Ms Miles without compunction but with, one suspects, a sneaking sense of awe at the vastness of her dishonesty and the grossly distasteful nature of her lies. After all, what reason for absence given by an employee are you less likely to challenge than a family bereavement? Which employer would feel able to greet news of yet another passing with “Are you sure?, Can you prove it?, or Pull the other one, it’s got bells on”? This is not advice to check up on your staff in these things – very few employees have the taste for sustained deceit at this level and the scope for adverse PR if you do express scepticism at the wrong moment is absolutely hideous.