The Manager’s guide to a return-to-work interview

A quick summary:

  • What is a return-to-work interview?
  • Why are return-to-work interviews important?
  • How to conduct a return-to-work interview?
  • Return-to-work interview questions
  • Our final thoughts on a return-to-work interview

It’s said that a return-to-work interview is one of the most effective ways of bringing an employee back into the office. A compassionate approach that shows a duty of care which disciplinary procedures fail to achieve.

But why is absence so detrimental? Well, it signifies slower growth and incomplete projects. Not to mention the talent shortage problems it can create. But be it long or short-term, managers must put those points aside to remain supportive.

In this guide, we’re looking at precisely why you should consider hosting a return-to-work interview and why they are so important. By the end of this article, you’ll have everything you need to know to level up your managerial skills.

two employees during a return to work interview
Understanding a return to work interview

What is a return-to-work interview?

A return-to-work interview is a conversation between a manager and an employee regarding short-term or long-term absences. Generally, these are informal discussions and aim to find a solution to bringing an employee back after a period of absence.

The outcome may be a phased return to work, for instance. Choosing to bring an employee back on a set of days each week. Alternatively, the decision might include some form of flexible working, should an employee become a new parent for example.

Similar read: 3 employee benefits that support parents at work

A return-to-work meeting is all about supporting employees regardless of their reason for an absence. However, that doesn’t you, as a manager cannot be curious about employee absence.

Some topics of conversation during a return-to-work interview may include what an employee has been up to during leave (or absence), how they would best feel comfortable returning and the expectations of an employer upon their return.

This conversation simply clears up any confusion and ensures everyone understands what the plan of action is moving forward. It’s as simple as that!

Now that we’ve covered the meaning of a return-to-work interview, let’s turn our attention to why they’re important to any workplace absence policy.

Someone suffering from illness at home

Why are return-to-work interviews important?

The primary purpose of a return-to-work meeting is to quash absence in the workplace. That’s exactly why it’s important to normalise these conversations. The longer absences occur, the worse off your business will be.

A return-to-work interview also demonstrates to investors, candidates and existing employees that absences are unacceptable and that employees. It’s an example of care from an employer for their workforce too.

A return-to-work interview is actually beneficial for organisations for businesses and people. A win-win scenario. Below are a few other reasons why a return to work interview is crucial:

  • Employers can properly identify problems employees have
  • Face-to-face meetings dissuade employees from being untruthful
  • Encourages open communication in a one-to-one meeting

Now that we’re aware of the reasons why a return-to-work interview is important, let’s look at another popular question, how do you conduct one of these meetings?

Similar read: How to create a wellbeing committee in the workplace

three managers speaking to an employee
Considerations for your return to work meeting

How to conduct a return-to-work interview?

Understanding how best to conduct a return-to-work meeting is crucial for a manager or HR professional. We’re going to look at a number of points that you need to consider. Go through each one before your next return-to-work interview with an employee.

Be supportive and welcoming towards employees

Before discussing absences with an employee, it’s important to remind yourself about rule one during a return-to-work interview: remain supportive and welcoming towards employees. It’s wrong to assume their absence was malicious.

And despite the implications it has likely had on your business, you will only push employees away once again by approaching them in a criticising manner. Instead, try to encourage small talk during their return-to-work interview. Discuss how they’ve been and if they’re feeling ready to get back into things.

Jumping into questions that will cause employees to put up their guard will achieve very little, and hinder any open communication from happening thereafter.

But it’s not just the kind of questions you ask as a manager during a return-to-work meeting, it’s the tone of voice used and approach of your questions. Be considerate of the way you communicate with employees and your choice of words.

All-in-all, you will have a much more productive return-to-work interview by being warm to absent employees. In most cases of absence, employees need your support, not hostility.

A mother working from home

Understand any changing needs of employees

As we touched on previously, employees can be absent for a whole range of reasons. It’s the role of a leader to understand how their needs and requirements have changed since they left.

That’s the purpose of a return-to-work interview. It gives employees the opportunity to speak up about what they need from an employer to move forward. And it’s as simple as asking the right questions (something we’ll cover later).

For instance, if an employee has recently become a parent, they may need to finish earlier and start later. Alternatively, if employees now have disability requirements, like access points into the building, this is something managers need to think about.

One of the most efficient ways to lead a return-to-work interview is by listening to the needs of employees upon their return, i.e being conscious leadership. You may find out they have very little or none, but as a manager, you should still ask these questions during a return-to-work meeting.

Meeting their needs is choosing to help them thrive in the workplace once again. After all, when we all choose jobs, we do so because they meet certain criteria, preferences and needs.

Be attentive to plans for their return

Before you officially bring an employee back into the workplace, you should have a plan of action. This plan should be rigid. It must be outlined during the return-to-work interview so everyone knows where they stand.

For instance, you might want to discuss any changes to departments and office facilities. It may be that you want to consider a slower return-to-work for employees to help them adjust.

These plans should be developed on a case-by-case basis, depending on the circumstances surrounding employees. After the return-to-work interview, your employee will know exactly what they need to do in the coming days, weeks or months.

The workplace can be a daunting place after a period of absence. Ask yourself the following questions as a manager — they should help you create your questions:

  • Is our work environment welcoming?
  • Are colleagues aware of the return of an absent employee?
  • Has our plan considered their needs and requests?Is their line manager in the loop?

In addition to having a solid plan prepared, there’s also one more tip for how to conduct a return-to-work interview. It’s remembering that this is a conversation, not a lecture for employees.

Remember it’s a conversation, not a lecture

So, you’ve got your plan together during a return-to-work meeting. You’ve remained supportive, and have looked for ways to support employee needs. The last thing to remember is that employees need to have a voice during a return-to-work interview.

After all, it’s in the name “interview”. These conversations won’t get very far if employees are forced to listen to you for long periods of time. Most people switch off when they aren’t engaged in a conversation.

To ensure they are all ears, ask questions and welcome questions towards the end of the return-to-work interview. Not only will this keep them present in the conversation, but they will take everything you’re saying on board too.

If you have some sort of strategy for your return-to-work interview, try to ask questions like “What do you think about that?” after each topic. This will turn an interrogation into a conversation.

There you have it. We’ve discussed the various best practices for how to conduct a return-to-work interview. Using these pointers, you’ll be in a much better position to carry out your new return to work meeting.

Let’s now look at some return-to-work interview questions you should consider using in your next meeting with an absent employee.

A manager and employee discussing returning to work
Questions to ask during your return-to-work-interview

Return-to-work interview questions

The questions below are somewhat generic for a return-to-work interview. Because of this, you should choose your questions carefully and tailor them to your own meeting. That said, this should help inspire new questions of your own.

Questions around illness and poor health

The questions below should help leaders draw a clearer picture of employee illness and poor health, and how to best support an employee.

  1. How are you feeling now?
  2. Do you feel well enough to return-to-work?
  3. Can you foresee any more absences in the near future?
  4. Has the workplace contributed to your recent absence?
  5. Have you been prescribed medication?
  6. Does your medication have any side effects we should be aware of?
  7. What can I, as your manager, do to support your health and wellbeing?
  8. Are you making use of our wellbeing initiatives?
  9. What other adjustments can we make to support your health and wellbeing?

Questions around parental leave

The questions below are relevant for managers who are discussing the absence of an employee due to becoming a new parent.

  1. How have you found your parental leave?
  2. How would you describe your current mental health?
  3. Do you feel ready to return-to-work?
  4. Do you have any new requirements we should know about?
  5. Are you able to return on a full-time basis?
  6. Are there any new benefits/initiatives that would support you?
  7. What challenges do you foresee upon your return-to-work?
  8. How can we best support you?

Questions around their return-to-work

These questions are simply a way to round things up. To help both you and your employee understand what’s to happen next and what’s expected of them.

  1. Are you aware of the plan of action over the next couple of weeks?
  2. Is there anything we haven’t covered that you’d like to discuss?
  3. Do you understand what’s expected of you upon your return?
  4. Do you feel our expectations and goals are fair?
  5. Are you happy to catch up with us in the next few weeks?
  6. Would you speak up if you feel your return-to-work isn’t going well?
  7. How can we improve our return-to-work interview for other employees?

As you can tell, these questions only scratch the surface of what to ask employees, but they should help form a positive and productive return-to-work interview. As we’ve already mentioned, think about more personalised questions to ask your employees.

Our final thoughts on a return-to-work interview

And that’s a wrap. Hopefully, this full guide to hosting a return-to-work interview will help you in bringing your best talent back to work. Dealing with absences in the workplace is no easy task.

It requires a supportive, considerate and compassionate approach. Unfortunately, too often managers and HR departments get it wrong. They choose to place blame on employees and threaten employees with the need for fewer absences.

Of course, this doesn’t always happen. But if employees come away feeling guilty for time away, whatever the reason, then you’ve gone about things in the wrong way. How should employees feel after a return-to-work interview? Well, it’s simple. They should feel inspired to return and ready to produce their best work!
Ultimately, if you want to retain your best talent, you must conduct a return-to-work interview when they are absent for short or long periods of time.

It’s a tool that aims to support both your business and the employee in question. It’s not a means to interrogate but to offer a helping hand. Done effectively, you can increase your retention rate, improve workpalce wellbeing and create a culture of openness and honesty.

People who want to be present will see your return-to-work interview as an opportunity to have their problems resolved and their requests answered. In fact, ignoring the need for a return-to-work interview can lead to absenteeism and poor morale.

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