The decision to suspend an employee is never one that should be made lightly. It is a serious measure which requires appropriate management, particularly around confidentiality to fully protect the employee’s personal integrity and professional reputation. Timing and criteria are important, so being fully equipped as an employer with the knowledge of risk and potential repercussion is crucial.

The general understanding of suspension is as a ‘holding measure’ where an employee is not permitted to attend work. This is normally where a disciplinary policy has been invoked following alleged misconduct, and suspension occurs during the process of investigation up to the point of the conclusion of the disciplinary stage. Suspension from work, however, can also be imposed as a sanction itself following the conclusion of a disciplinary. For this to be implemented as an outcome, however, it must feature in the company’s disciplinary policy.

There have been cases where a legal claim has been pursued against an employer, and the courts found in favour of the employee, deciding that the suspension was not warranted. One case involved an employee being suspended verbally, and in the presence of others, without having been given written grounds to justify the decision. Another case involved a bank official who was suspended due to allegations of using a series of personal email addresses to correspond with clients at work.

There are specific criteria to apply to ensure that suspension is legally warranted. These are:

  • Suspension to prevent risk of misconduct or similar incidents recurring
  • Suspension to prevent risk of tampering of evidence
  • Suspension to prevent risk of damage to the company reputation

In addition, employers must also consider the overall rationale and grounds for making the decision to suspend, and the circumstances and facts around the allegations. For example, where there is minimal risk of alleged misconduct happening again, or little risk to anyone in general, it may be difficult to justify the decision.

Employees should be notified (in writing) of the decision made to suspend them, and the reasons. Should this be done verbally initially, this must be followed up promptly with the written notification of suspension (and the grounds). A significant delay in suspending an employee may weaken the grounds for making that decision, calling into question the risk that was identified in the first place – if the risk existed, why the delay in making the decision?

It is vital that a suspension is only imposed for the length it takes for the investigation to conclude, or should allegations be founded or partly founded, for the time it takes the disciplinary stage to conclude. Any formal processes such as these should also be concluded as quickly as possible. The longer an employee is suspended, the harder it can be for them to return to work. The length of time someone has been absent, the greater the difficulty for them to justify the length of absence, risking damaged reputation. An employee may also suffer readjustment issues and potentially risk being faced with questioning from their colleagues, or assumptions being made.

To suspend or not to?

Employers should approach suspension with absolute caution, considering all facts available to them, and in a timely manner. These include any potential risks, both towards the company and towards the employee. It should also be a decision made without prejudice, meaning that it cannot and should not be a decision clouded by emotion, or one intended to cause any personal or professional damage or punishment to an employee.

It is also vital that employers strictly follow their own written policies and procedures when choosing to invoke a disciplinary process, or when deciding to suspend an employee.