Managing the performance of people affected by cancer

2 minute read time.

Here are a couple of case studies to get you thinking: can you spot what the employers should have done differently in the two case studies below?

Case 1: 

A friend of mine, relatively new in a senior role, was diagnosed with cancer. Keen to keep on working during her chemo and with no real knowledge of what chemo was like, she committed to going into work for a couple of days a week. This worked well for a couple of cycles of chemotherapy but it soon became clear to her that, given the impact of her chemotherapy was cumulative, she wouldn't be able to work the days to which she had committed. Her employer’s response was to start performance managing her for not fulfilling her commitments and not meeting her targets.

Case 2: 

A client of mine returned to work following cancer treatment to find that her boss had requested a 360-degree appraisal of her in her absence. She returned to a meeting in her first week back with her boss and an HR representative, where she was confronted by anonymous and highly-critical comments from her boss and colleagues.

If you don’t see anything wrong in the above cases, please do two things:

 1. For Case 1, have a careful read of the Equality Act or Macmillan’ s excellent booklet Managing cancer in the workplace or their equally useful booklet entitled Your rights at work.

 2. For Case 2, take a deep breath and consider how you would feel if you were treated in this way.

In Case 1, setting aside the insensitivity of the actions described, the law requires an employer to consider reasonable adjustments  such as flexible working and reduced hours. Also, when it comes to performance management the employer needs to consider how they would have treated someone whose circumstances were similar to the person affected by cancer. This was clearly not done. In Case 2, although an employer might argue that all employees are treated in the same way, to confront someone recovering from cancer with an unexpected 360 strikes me as crass and bordering on unprofessional. (Also my client might potentially have had a claim that her employer failed to make a reasonable adjustment, i.e. to allow her reasonable time back at work before giving her feedback).

So please have a look at your performance management process. Are managers clear about how they should manage the performance of individuals covered by the Equality Act? Do they know that all cancer survivors are covered by the Act in perpetuity? If not, they should and this could easily be addressed by ensuring this issue is covered in the briefing notes you write and/or the training sessions you run for your managers.

Remember, as a responsible employer, you are required to do the right thing and the penalties for getting it wrong are high.

Barbara Wilson is Founder of Working with Cancer. For more information, visit 

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  • FormerMember

    I have nothing but praise for my employer, like many others, I suspect, I wanted to carry on work as 'normal'. The message I received was ' your health is the priority, do not consider anything else than that. Take time off as you need' There was no effort to assess how my illness affected my work, apart from asking if I needed any help,