Firstly, your approach is dependent upon whether your sickness policy is contractual or not.
If the policy is clearly non-contractual and reserves the right to be amended from time to time, then you are generally able to simply make the changes you want to make and make your staff aware of this.
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If the policy is contractual and therefore constitutes part of your employees’ terms and conditions, then you need to tread more carefully. Introducing changes to an employee’s terms and conditions requires agreement by both parties because unilateral changes are not permitted – this means that you cannot simply impose a change unless it is required by law, as was the case when the indoor smoking ban was introduced.
A consultation process is required during which all affected employees should be informed of the intended changes, with an explanation of the reason why the changes are required. This needn’t be done by way of individual meeting – a memo/email to all staff, or a collective gathering, should usually suffice. If your employees are represented, for example by a trade union, then these representatives should be consulted. You should then give the employees the opportunity to raise concerns with you about the changes, and you should listen to any alternative ideas they may have.
It may be that after consultation, your employees will understand the need for the changes and, even if some initial resistance occurs, will agree in the end. If strong resistance remains, employers have the option to terminate the current contract and simultaneously offer employees a new contract containing the new terms. This is a last resort and should not be taken without specific legal advice because it carries the risk of an unfair dismissal claim at Employment Tribunal.
Peter Done is managing director and founder of HR consultancy Peninsula