Acas has published new advice on how to consider and handle staff suspensions at work. The advice is comprehensive and broadly covers what constitutes a suspension, the reasons for which an employer may suspend someone and the steps that should be taken before and during the suspension. This blog will consider each of these in more detail.
What is suspension?
Suspension is when an employer tells an employee to temporarily stop carrying out work. It is most commonly used when an employer needs to carry out an investigation into an employee’s conduct and there is a pressing need for the employee to be kept away from the business whilst that happens. It is also sometimes used where there is a specific health concern.
The new Acas advice is clear that suspension does not mean that an employee has done anything wrong and should not be used to discipline someone. An employee should typically receive full pay and benefits whilst suspended.
Reasons for suspension
Suspension can have a significant effect on working relationships and the mental health of staff involved so the guidance states that an employer should only suspend someone if it is appropriate. Examples given include:
- suspending an employee while they carry out an investigation, if it is a serious situation and there is no alternative; or
- medical suspension or pregnancy suspension to protect an employee’s health and safety.
Acas advises that employers should consider each situation carefully before making a decision. It is important that the employer is able to explain why suspension is a reasonable step to take, otherwise they might face claims alleging breach of the employment contract. This will usually involve considering the risks arising from the employee staying at work, including the risk to other staff and customers.
Alternatives to suspension
The Acas guidance is clear that it is usually best to avoid suspension if possible. Alternatives suggested by the guidance include:
- changing shifts; and
- changing where the employee works, whether this is at a different location, department or from home.
If dealing with a situation involving more than one employee, the guidance recommends that the employer carefully consider whether one or both employees should be moved and to approach this in a fair and reasonable way. If the investigation arises from a complaint from another employee, the guidance recognises that the employee who made the complaint should generally not be moved. The guidance also deals with cases where an external body might be investigating and how this should be approached.
The guidance reminds employers that communications about the suspension should be confidential and that they should discuss with the employee who else in the workplace will be told about it. This is important as part of managing the employee’s eventual return to the workplace or, if formal action is necessary, ensuring that such process can be carried out fairly.
Focus on welfare and mental health
The new Acas guidance places a priority on employees’ mental health and wellbeing, acknowledging that being suspended is a stressful time for everyone. It recommends that employers should support a suspended worker by:
- explaining the reason for the suspension;
- making it clear that suspension is not a disciplinary sanction;
- maintaining pay and benefits;
- keeping the suspension under review and as short as possible;
- taking steps to maintain confidentiality; and
- staying in regular contact throughout. In some cases, it might be appropriate to appoint a separate Welfare Manager to support the employee during the suspension.
The terms of the suspension should also be confirmed in writing.
The key takeaway for employers is that suspension should not be a knee-jerk reaction and should only be used when it is a reasonable way to deal with the situation. This will always be a fact-specific question. Acas also emphasises the need to protect employee welfare during suspension and employers should bear this is mind at each stage of the process. The surest way to ensure that an investigation and any formal procedure that follows is fair is to show consideration was given to the Acas guidance. Disciplinary policies should be updated to reflect the latest guidance where appropriate.
If you have any questions or would like advice on handling suspensions fairly, please contact our PRM team who would be happy to help.