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Want to stay on the right side of the law? We support businesses and public authorities and help them to promote good practice.

Managing absence

What you need to know

How we can help



Managing staff absence

You should ensure your absence management procedures are applied fairly and consistently to all employees regardless of:


  • sex or marital/civil partnership status
  • gender reassignment
  • religious or similar philosophical belief, or political opinion
  • race
  • age
  • sexual orientation
  • or because of their disability


Treating someone less favourably on these grounds is discrimination.


Are any types of absence management more likely to result in discrimination?

Yes.  There are certain areas where there is a risk of discrimination occurring.  These are:

Disability-related absences

Reasonable Adjustments

If a disabled employee is off work for a reason related to their disability, you should always consider whether any Reasonable Adjustments need to be made.

This can mean changing how you normally do certain things in order to accommodate the needs of a disabled employee.  The purpose is to reduce or remove the disadvantages faced by a disabled person, which prevent them from doing their job or being fully involved at work. There are many types of reasonable adjustments you can make; some of these include revising your managing absence procedure, altering a disabled employee’s working hours, patterns or duties, providing information in accessible formats, making physical alterations to your premises and so on.  The extent of an adjustment will always depend on the individual circumstances of each case.  This duty is a legal requirement.
  • For example a teacher who is absent from work due to a degenerative back injury and leg pain has difficulty using stairs and standing or sitting for prolonged periods.After consulting the employee and considering medical advice, the employer agrees a reasonable adjustment of reduced working hours finishing at 2pm.

Disability Code of Practice

The Disability Code of Practice (pdf) provides guidance on the reasonable adjustment duty.  Chapter 5 gives examples of how to change the way things are done by making adjustments to 'provisions, criteria or practices' and ‘physical features’ of premises which substantially disadvantage a disabled person compared to people who aren’t disabled.  This includes adjustments to employment policies and procedures, employment contracts, recruitment and selection criteria, working conditions and so on.

For example:
  • An employee with M.E. has been off work for a 4 month period and has been recommended a gradual return.  The employer agrees a flexible and structured plan with the employee of two periods of two hours per week until the employee can increase their level of activity by 10% and sustain it over time.
  • A disabled woman has been absent from work because of pain from severe and worsening arthritis in her hands.  Her employer agrees to make an adjustment to her computer equipment, the door handles in the office and the taps in the kitchen and toilet.

Chapter 8 of the Disability Code of Practice (pdf) provides information on how to avoid disability discrimination from happening during the employment relationship including terms and conditions of service, induction, training and development, workplace benefits, promotion and transfer, managing ill health and termination of employment.


  • For example, an employee becomes disabled because of a back injury. After talking to the employee and taking specialist advice the employer decides there are no adjustments that can be made to the present role.  A different post at the same level of seniority is vacant and the employee is given the opportunity to transfer.

Flexible working

"Flexible Working – A Guide for Employers" (pdf) provides information on the reasonable adjustment duty and flexible working arrangements for disabled employees. The Commission also provides free training for employers on disability in the workplace.

Employees affected by cancer

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (as amended) states that people who are diagnosed with cancer are deemed to be disabled from the point of diagnosis rather than from the point when the condition has some adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

Under the law, employees with cancer cannot be treated less favourably than other staff - this could be deemed discrimination. This includes during recruitment processes, employee terms and conditions, benefits, and opportunities for promotion and training.

Good practice steps for supporting employees affected by cancer:

1. Encourage an open culture, talk early and stay in touch
2. Be flexible, listen, understand and ask
3. Update your policies and review effectiveness of reasonable adjustments
4. Offer easy access to your guidelines and policies
5. Ensure contact with occupational health service if you have one
6. Ensure a smooth transition back to work
7. Provide HR Support and train your managers
8. Find relevant support services
9. Seek work and cancer support from MacMillan
10. Seek support from the Equality Commission NI

Further guidance is available by contacting our Employer enquiry line 028 90 890 888 or email

Pregnancy-related absence and maternity leave

Sex equality law protects women from discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy and maternity leave. In these circumstances a woman does not have to compare herself with someone who is not pregnant or on maternity leave to show that she has been treated less favourably.   


For example a woman who is 16 weeks pregnant and who has been absent from work on three occasions due to morning sickness is entitled to receive the same sick pay as other employees. Her absence should be recorded separately from non- pregnancy-related sickness absences and must not count towards her total sickness record or used as a reason to discipline or
penalize her.



Women affected by menopause

Women currently make up half of the workforce in Northern Ireland and at some stage during their working lives they may have to work through the menopause and this can impact on how they work. While statutory equality law does not expressly provide protection for menopause or perimenopause, those who suffer discrimination in employment that is related directly or indirectly to them having menopausal symptoms may be able to seek legal remedies if alleging that they have suffered unlawful discrimination or harassment on the grounds of sex, disability or age.

The Equality Commission, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions Northern Ireland Committee and the Labour Relations Agency have produced guidance to explain why menopause may be a workplace issue for some employees and how employers can support those affected by it.

The guidance has been designed to assist employers, working together with employees and trade unions, to build a positive and supportive workplace for anyone going through the menopause. It includes good practice examples, a checklist for employers and other useful resources to help employers develop their policies and procedures to support women who are affected by the menopause whilst working.


Download the guidance (pdf format - 1.46mb)


Absence relating to Gender Reassignment

If a person is undergoing gender reassignment, they are protected by sex discrimination law.  This also applies to someone who has undergone gender reassignment in the past or is planning to undergo the process.

It is good practice to discuss as far as possible in advance what time off a transitioning member of staff may require for any medical or surgical procedures.  In these circumstances you should ensure that do not treat the employee less favourably, as they are entitled to the same sickness absence and pay as other employees in the organisation.

How can I make sure I am not discriminating?

You should review the impact of your absence management policy and procedures across all equality grounds and address any areas of concern as part of your wider equal opportunities monitoring policies.

For example, you should make sure that line managers have received up-to-date training on your policy and are aware of how to manage the types of absence referred to above.  Providing guidelines on how to deal with these absences fairly and consistently will help to avoid discrimination from occurring.

There are two useful guides which will help you in the general management of absence:


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How we can help

We believe that helping you promote and encourage good equal opportunities practice is as important as enforcing the equality law. Every year, the Commission helps hundreds of businesses and organisations comply with equality laws.

We recognise that employers' needs differ across sectors and businesses – so we tailor our services to meet employers’ varying needs.


We provide high quality training seminars and information sessions to employers on a wide range of equality issues.

These events provide advice and guidance on employers’ duties under current equality laws and on introducing best practice. We recommend that employers carefully consider their needs and choose the seminars and sessions which are of most benefit to them.


    Training sessions include:

   •  Introduction to understanding equality
   •  Equality training for line managers
   •  Recruiting fairly
   •  Harassment at work
   •  Pregnancy, maternity and flexible working
   •  Mental ill-health at work
   •  Promoting disability in the workplace 
   •  Reasonable steps defence
   •  How to complete an Article 55 Review
   •  Monitoring form workshops







We are flexible in terms of themes covered and can tailor courses to suit employers’ business needs. Further details are available on our employer training page or email - Tel: 02890 500600


In-house training

On occasion, the Commission can provide in-house training for organisations.  Where we agree to such a request, we will normally deliver one session to key staff within the organisation and assist them to disseminate the training internally. For in-house training requests email or Tel: 028 90 500600.

Speakers for your event

If you are organising an equality related event, our staff can share their expertise to highlight relevant issues in equality law that relate to your business priorities. For further information, contact Paul Oakes  Tel: 028 90 500600.

Employer news ezine

To receive updates on our training seminars, events and employer equality networks sign up to receive our Employer & Service Providers' Newsletter using the subscribe button at the bottom of the page.


This is a selection of publications that are most relevant to managing absence.
Useful website:
Please contact our Advice and Compliance team if you need further advice, email or Tel: 02890 890 888.

If you are looking for a particular publication, you can search our publications database

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