Suspending employees: Key HR questions

Suspending an employee is not a decision an employer should take without consideration of whether it is truly necessary, and suspension should not be used as a disciplinary measure. Maya Alba-Heller looks at what the latest Acas guidance says.

Suspension is when an employer tells an employee to stop carrying out work. This can be a difficult avenue for employers, managers and employees to negotiate. So difficult, in fact, that it can have a considerable negative impact on working relationships and mental health, and should be avoided if possible.

Employees can be suspended for medical reasons to protect their health and safety. For example, this may be used if the workplace is considered unsafe during someone's pregnancy and the risks cannot be removed. But an employer might also suspend a staff member if they are carrying out a disciplinary or grievance investigation, or if there is a serious situation or issue.

This could leave the employee feeling like they have been judged to have done something wrong, even when that is not the case. A suspension can feel like a punishment, even though it should never be used as a disciplinary measure. This leaves employers and managers with a lot to consider before resorting to it.

Suspension should only occur if absolutely necessary to protect an investigation, the business, other employees, or the person being suspended and should be as short as possible.

Today, Acas has published advice to help employers understand when they can consider suspension and to ensure that the mental health and wellbeing of staff members are supported along the way.

What is the process for suspending an employee?

If an employer decides to proceed with suspension, they should:

  • communicate with the employee and make clear that the suspension does not mean they've decided that person has done something wrong;
  • ensure the suspension is as brief as possible;
  • keep in touch with the suspended employee; and
  • carry out a fair investigation, in line with the Acas Code of Practice on discipline and grievance.

While there is no legal requirement to give written notice for suspension, it's best to put it in writing to avoid misunderstandings.

It is also key to maintain confidentiality wherever possible. Failing to do so could cause a breakdown in trust and may break the employment contract. The employer and employee should discuss what they'll tell colleagues and should not share personal information. There may also be circumstances where someone else needs to be informed, such as an investigating team.

Are there alternatives to suspension?

An employer should consider the alternatives to suspension and might arrange for staff to change shifts or work from different parts of the organisation, or from home. Changes to working practices, such as getting the employee to work in a different part of the organisation or with different customers, may also be an alternative. If stock or money has gone missing, then removing access to stock or finance systems might also be an avenue to explore.

An employer should keep the reason for any temporary change confidential, if possible, and discuss with the employee what they'll tell others at work.

How much should a person being suspended be told?

There are no rules on how much someone should be told about the reason for their suspension. The employer will need to decide what is appropriate in order to maintain confidentiality, carry out a fair investigation and ensure the person is supported.

Suspension can make someone feel like they've already been judged, and they could be worried. Providing information on the subject of the investigation, the employee's involvement and the reason for suspension can help them understand the situation and show that a fair procedure is being followed.

How long should the suspension last?

Suspension should be as short as possible while an investigation is carried out and reviewed regularly. Prolonging a suspension could affect the health and wellbeing of the employee, be unreasonable and lead to a breakdown in trust.

What if the employee disagrees with their suspension?

It is best to discuss it informally first. Clear and transparent communication may help explain the reason for the suspension. However, if they feel the matter is still unresolved, they may raise it formally as a grievance. If they are a member of a trade union, they could also talk to their representative.

Ending the suspension

If, following an investigation, no further action is needed, the suspension should end as soon as possible. But if the investigation leads to a disciplinary procedure, the employer will need to decide whether the suspension will continue while the procedure is carried out.

The employer can end the suspension at any time, so the employee should ensure they are available to return to work.

Do suspended employees still get paid and can they take holiday during suspension?

Anyone suspended should get their usual pay and contractual benefits. Stopping or reducing someone's pay during suspension could lead to legal action. Employers should check their policies on sick pay during suspension, in case the employee falls sick while suspended.

If the employer agrees, the suspended employee can take holiday in the normal way. An employer can refuse or cancel someone's holiday if they are suspended, but this should follow correct procedures and could lead to further upset.

How can we support an employee's mental health during suspension?

Being suspended can impact a person's mental health. They might feel worried or distressed about the investigation and this could lead to an issue arising or an existing one returning or worsening.

It might not be obvious if a person's mental health is affected. An employer has a legal duty of care to support their staff during suspension and look after their wellbeing. They can do so by:

  • communicating clearly and regularly;
  • making clear the suspension is not confirmation of guilt;
  • listening to their employee's point of view before making any decisions;
  • ensuring the suspension only lasts for as long as it needs to; and
  • providing the proper contact details if the person has concerns.

Ensuring managers are trained to support staff and are aware of relevant support networks is also important. External support may include contacting a mental health helpline, speaking to a family member or friend, their trade union representative or Citizens Advice. There is also advice available on the Acas website and we can provide confidential advice to anyone needing advice on suspension or worried about its impact.