“Help! My employee refuses to return to work! What can I do?”

Moira Grassick - Chief Operating Officer

July 28 2023

First published: October 7th, 2021
Last updated: July 28th 2023

Many employees grew very accustomed to working from home during the lockdown years. It’s no surprise that employees want to continue working remotely after ditching their commutes and winning back more time for their family and personal lives.

On the other hand, a large cohort of employers always considered that remote working arrangements would be a temporary measure and are having to manage resistance from staff who are not happy to return to the office.

This scenario raises a number of intriguing HR questions. What rights do you have if an employee refuses to return to work? Can employees be disciplined for staying at home? And how can they be encouraged to return to work?

Let’s take a look…

What can the employer do?

If an employee refuses to return to work without reason, it could be deemed an unauthorised absence. It’s possible the employee has genuine concerns about returning to the office. It’s best to start off by holding informal talks with any staff member who is reluctant to return to the office. Once you have identified their concerns, you may be able to come up with a mutually agreed solution.

Should I begin a disciplinary process?

If there are no legal reasons for the employee to continue working from home and their employment contract requires them to work onsite, you may need to consider disciplinary action.

You should notify the employee in writing that they’re required to return to work in line with the terms of their contract. The letter or email should also confirm that if the employee fails to attend work, it may lead to formal disciplinary action.

If the employee continues to refuse to return or fails to engage, you may need to proceed through the stages in your disciplinary process which could include sanctions all the way up to dismissal.

If the employee has at least 12 months’ continuous service prior to being dismissed, you must remember that any dismissal must be compliant with Unfair Dismissal legislation to minimise the risk of suffering a claim in the Workplace Relations Commission.

Is the employee performing well at home?

If the employee in question is able to carry out their work from home and their productivity hasn’t dropped, it may be best to consider making the arrangement permanent. Or consider a hybrid working arrangement. This could be a mutually agreeable way to resolve an impasse over a full-time return to work.

Involve employees in your health and safety assessment

As certain employees may have specific health concerns, you could consider showing your employees how you’re doing your best to protect everyone’s health through regular risk assessments.

When conducting your risk assessment, seek staff input as part of the process.

Ask them if there are any specific safety steps they’d like you to take. For instance, some employees might feel safer working staggered shifts to avoid cramming onto public transport at rush hour. Staggered breaks would also free up communal spaces.

Involving employees in your risk assessments helps show them you’re taking their concerns seriously and you’re giving them a level of control over the environment they work in.

Share your safety measures with staff

Share the results of your risk assessment with staff too.

You can do this by sharing a paper copy of the assessment for those who are present in the workplace. For those who are working from home, you could send a short video of the workplace and a digital copy of the risk assessment.

Communicating the results of your risk assessment along with control measures being taken to minimise the threat of any workplace risks helps reassure employees that the workplace is safe.

Expert HR guidance around remote working

For advice on handling employees who refuse to return to work or guidance on adhering to Irish employment law, speak to one of our HR experts today on 1800 719 216

Suggested Resources