Trusts should be “wary” of withholding pay increments from staff with poor attendance records, one of the country’s most senior industrial relations figures has told HSJ.

The warning from Peter Harwood, chief conciliator at Acas, comes as several foundation trusts are poised to fight through the courts for the right to restrict pay in this way.

Asked whether linking pay to attendance was the right thing to do, Mr Harwood said: “I’d always be very wary.

“You’ve got to be careful that you’re not discriminating against people because of their disability, and [careful about] your record keeping and consistency [of approach].”

He added: “The key element of attendance management is that if anyone doesn’t attend for work it should be noticed and commented upon. Too often nothing happens until a trigger point is reached.”

Staff unrest in the NHS was likely to grow due to financial pressures, mergers and the growth of shared services, Mr Harwood said. This meant trusts planning changes to staff terms and conditions should consider delaying at least until the ongoing public sector pensions row had been resolved.

He said: “I don’t think it’s unreasonable for trusts to have to think about these issues, but is now the best time to do it?

“Trying to deal with lots of issues at the same time can get very confusing both for unions and managers.  It might be better to get one issue out of the way first before you start looking at other issues.”

Mr Harwood said last October’s abolition of the default retirement age of 65 was also likely to land NHS employers with particular challenges. For example, some employees may want to continue in their roles until old age, even where the work is felt to be too physically tough.

He said: “There may be issues in the caring services where some of the work is physically demanding. In a way the default retirement age managed their performance for you. You need to make sure managers have the confidence to have conversations about people’s performance.”

But cuts to training budgets meant managers were not always getting the help they needed, he added.

He advised trusts to keep in regular contact with staff and explain any financial pressures and changes to the organisation’s structure.