Prepare for the Worst, Hope for the “not too bad”

This week’s parliamentary shenanigans have left the possibility of a “No Deal” Brexit very much on the cards – despite repeated statements from politicians of all sides that No Deal is not what they want.

Given that there is – at the time of writing – only two months to 29 March, the date on which the UK is due to leave, small businesses should be taking steps now to prepare for the worst-case scenario. In HR and employment terms some of the common queries I have had are:

1.       Can I still employ existing staff who come from the EU?

Yes, you can, although they will – after 29 March – need to apply to the Home Office for what is called ‘Settled Status’. Information on the process is available here.  You can continue to employ them while they go through the process. The official Government position – for what it is worth – is that unless there is a specific reason to deny settled status (e.g. criminal convictions) it will be granted.

If there is a deal, they will still have to apply for settled status but have up to 31 December 2020 to make their application.

People who have been in the UK for less than 5 years may only be allowed to apply for “Pre-Settled Status”. You will still be able to continue to employ them provided they have applied for,  and then been granted this.

2.      Can I recruit people from the EU after 29 March?

If there is a deal (with a transitional period) then yes. But if there’s no deal, then the situation is very unclear.

The worst-case situation is that new recruits from EU countries will need to meet the same or similar criteria to workers from other countries. This will mean applying for work visas (the new name for work permits) and registering your company as a sponsor organisation. This is a long-winded and convoluted procedure which many small firms have avoided in the past precisely for that reason. There are proposals to change the system, but they haven’t as yet been agreed or implemented.

If your business uses short-term ‘low skill’ labour (e.g. seasonal agricultural or hospitality staff) then there are proposals to implement a scheme of 12-month visas which will allow people to work in the UK temporarily. Again however it needs to be stressed that these are still only proposals.

Whatever system is put in place, employers will still be expected to carry out the normal “right to work” checks before employing someone.

3.     What if supplies are disrupted – can we lay staff off temporarily?

It depends – read my full post on this issue here.

4.    What about existing staff who need to travel to EU countries for work?

If there is a no-deal, the EU has said that people from the UK should not need a visa to travel to EU countries for short holidays or business trips. They will however need to apply for an ETIAS “visa waiver” document (similar to the ESTA scheme operated by the USA) every 3 years.

If you have business trips planned at the end of March or early April, there is the possibility of flight disruption.

If you have staff driving in Europe – whether this is for business trips or delivering freight –  you will have to make sure that all drivers carry a “Green Card” to show they have insurance. As this can take a month to process, you will need to apply by the end of February at the latest.

It’s also likely that in a no-deal situation, the EHIC card – which allows people to receive free health service treatment in any EU country – will no longer apply to UK citizens. So you will need to make sure that you have adequate health insurance for any employees travelling outside the UK.

The situation is extremely fluid at the moment. Although the information is correct at the time of publication, it may not be in a day or so. Keep an eye out for future posts. If you have a Brexit-related HR or employment question that isn’t covered here, please get in touch

The Luck of the Irish?

Here we are, only 5 months away from the Brexit date and, at the time of writing, no agreement on the arrangements for the UK to leave and the possibility of a “No Deal” Brexit still high. It’s small wonder that a number of my SME clients are considering options to set up operations in Ireland in order to continue trading seamlessly from April next year – especially when we read today that Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab is to order his civil servants to start issuing “No Deal” instructions to business.

But operating in a foreign country means following their employment laws. So how does Ireland differ from the UK?

The good news is that the Irish system – unlike many in the EU – is based on the same legal principles and processes as the UK. So it won’t look entirely unfamiliar to businesses and HR professionals. But there are some important differences, summarised below

Key Differences between UK and Irish Employment Law

Area of Law UK Ireland
Minimum Wage Different Levels based on age, and for apprentices Essentially an ‘under 18’ and ‘over 18’ rate although there are specific rates for those on training or in first two years of work after 18.
Working Time 20 minute Rest break entitlement after 6 hours working 15 minute rest break after 4.5 hours or 30 minutes after 6 hours
Pensions Auto enrolment No compulsory
Sick Pay SSP No compulsory
Holidays 5.6 weeks 4 weeks (with different  calculation rules for part-timers)
Zero Hours No guarantee (no work no pay) Guaranteed a minimum number of hours even if none worked (however, very few used – most employers would use “If and When” contracts – same as UK ‘casual’ – with no rights)
Agency Workers Rights only after 12 weeks with a company Rights from Day 1
Employment Status Employee, worker (limb b) or self-employed Employee or self-employed – no ‘intermediate’ worker status
Redundancy Payments Calculated on age and service Calculated on service only
Statutory Notice 1 week per complete year up to max of 12 Different ‘bands’ depending on service. Max 8 weeks after 15 years
Unfair dismissal Requires 2 years’ service Requires 1 years’ service
Working Time Can opt out of 48 hour max week No opt-out
Compensation No limit in discrimination or whistleblowing cases Limit of 2 years pay (discrimination) or 5 years pay (whistleblowing)
Settlement Agreements Can be used as an alternative to tribunal No such concept
Trade Union Right to recognition for collective bargain purposes if specific conditions met No statutory right to recognition
TUPE   More restricted definition of a transfer
Discrimination 9 protected characteristics 9 protected characteristics but some different to UK

·         Gender not Sex

·         Civil Status (= marital status in UK)

·         Family Status (parent of child under 18 – over 18 if disabled)

·         Member of Traveller Community

No: Gender reassignment, or pregnancy as a separate category (covered by gender)

Maternity Leave Pay Up to 52 weeks mat leave, 2 weeks after birth compulsory.

 

Employer must pay Statutory Maternity Pay if conditions are met

Up to 42 weeks mat leave.

Compulsory period of 2 weeks before and 4 weeks after birth.

 

No requirement on employer to pay, state maternity benefits available.

 

As with the UK, there is nothing to stop an employer offering above minimum conditions, but you can’t go below.

Obviously, this is only a general summary – more information is available from the Workplace Relations Commission which is broadly speaking the Irish equivalent of ACAS (although with more powers to inspect employers)

As well as recruiting staff in Ireland, some organisations are considering posting or seconding UK based staff there. At the moment, as both countries are EU members, this isn’t an issue. But in the event of a No Deal Brexit, will this change?

Yes. If the UK is not a member of the EU, or the broader EEA (which it won’t be in a No Deal situation) then UK nationals will be classed as third country nationals and will require a work permit. The good news is that Ireland has a considerably more relaxed approach than the UK – anyone from a third country can apply for a general employment permit unless they are in an excluded category of work (which can be found here).

So, relocation to Ireland is not too difficult in legal terms, although companies will need to think about plenty of other employment and non-employment issues. But – as per the Brexit secretary – now is the time to make your decision.

Important – this post is for general advice and information and neither Ariadne Associates or the author can be held liable if you take action based solely on the contents of it. You should seek professional advice, especially as the situation is changing daily.

 

No Deal – no pay?

The Government’s recent decision to publish a series of papers outlining what organisations should do in the event of a “no deal” Brexit has attracted a good deal of publicity and comment. But one that didn’t get much media attention was on “Workplace rights”.

The reason it didn’t is that there will be almost no change to employment law as a result of the UK leaving the European Union. Existing EU laws and regulations are now all incorporated into UK law (if they weren’t already) as a result of the EU Withdrawal Act 2018.

The only two slight changes – which will only affect a very small number of employers and employees – are that if there is no deal, UK based workers will no longer have the right to request that their employer sets up a European Works Council (something which only applies if the employer operates in two or more EU countries); and that UK employees who work in an EU country will no longer be protected by the EU’s Insolvency Directive if their employer becomes insolvent.

However, one area of employment law that may become important in the event of “No Deal” – particularly if there are problems in certain sectors – is the right to lay off staff temporarily. As an employer, you can request staff not to attend work at any point, but you can only do so without paying them* if you have an explicit clause in your employment contract.

Only a minority of companies include such a clause these days, since they are rarely if ever needed, and also because those that do have fluctuating demands tend to use “zero hour” contracts or other types of contingent arrangement.

But consider this scenario. Your company makes machines. Currently, you use widgets manufactured in Germany and imported by truck. In the event of a No Deal Brexit, widget imports are delayed, perhaps for a matter of weeks, while new customs arrangements are resolved. You’ve got nothing for your workforce to do but without a lay off clause you’ll need to continue paying them. Could your business survive?

So, you may want to change your employment contracts to incorporate an appropriately worded clause – contact us if you wish to do this.

But before you do, think about these three points

  • Changing contracts – even by agreement – is a time-consuming process.
  • If some or all of your staff won’t accept the change, do you really want to go through the whole process of dismissing them and re-engaging them for something that might not happen?
  • Even if staff do accept the change, it’s likely to affect their morale and commitment. Do the benefits of a lay-off clause outweigh the possible loss of productivity, increased absence or higher turnover?

The right to impose an unpaid lay-off may be a necessary step for your business – but think about it holistically, not simply financially.

(*you may have to pay a small “guarantee payment” for the first 5 days of any lay-off period)

The 15 things that HR should do (but doesn’t always)

Working as I do with small organisations, I’ll often read an article about some great new HR initiative or theory and wonder why we make things so complex. It seems to me that we frequently get so caught up in the processes, jargon and big picture stuff that we neglect what we are really all about. Employment is a relationship and we need to be clear about what it is that we are committing to, as our side of the ‘deal’. After giving it some thought, I’ve distilled it down to 15 points that define what HR should be doing to create a successful relationship (and where there is no HR, what senior managers should make sure they have in place) 

1.       We’ll pay you correctly, on time, and at a rate that is ‘felt fair’ by both sides.

2.       We’ll make sure that you have a safe place to work, with the right equipment and any required protective clothing

3.       We’ll make sure we comply with the law around employment

4.       If you apply for a job with us, we’ll make sure the process is clear and easy to follow, and keep you informed about your application.

5.       If you need training or other support during work, we’ll make sure that it is organised for you in a timely way.

6.       We’ll keep you informed about what’s going on in the organisation and how it affects you, and we’ll listen to your views

7.       If you do something that’s not right, we’ll make you aware of what it is and why – and do what we can to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

8.       If you think we’ve done something wrong, we want you tell us (and feel comfortable about doing so)

9.       If we do get something wrong, we’ll make sure it is put right (for the future, if we can’t correct it now).

10.   We recognise that there may be times when what individuals or groups of employees want may not be the same as what the organisation wants. We’ll always discuss the best way forward and try to reach a consensus if we can

11.   We won’t tolerate a culture where individuals are abused, belittled, harassed or insulted – whoever this is by.

12.   If we need to end your employment, we’ll make sure this is done with respect, professionalism and understanding.

13.   We can’t promise that every day you work here will be enjoyable. But we’ll try to make sure that the unpleasant ones are the exception, not the rule

14.   We understand that you may have things going on in your life outside work.  We’ll do our best to support you and, if we can, accommodate them.

15.   Above all, we recognise that you are a person too.

I’m conscious that I might be accused of coming up with a ‘best practice’ list – anathema to many modern-day HR practitioners. But I prefer to see it as a core set of principles – which can be adapted to virtually any business size, structure or sector. One thing’s for sure – could you say your organisation is doing all 15 currently?

It was only a joke!

“It was only a joke”

“I didn’t mean anything by it”

“Just our normal office banter”

“Do we have to be humourless in work now?”

Over the last 12 months, the issue of harassment has come to the forefront of business, with issues such as Harvey Weinstein, and the Presidents Club. Only this week,  business leader and TV personality Lord Sugar  got into hot water for issuing a (now deleted) tweet about Senegalese footballers. His response – that it was a misguided attempt at humour –  is a common one when individuals are confronted with inappropriate comments.  In fact, the comments above are the usual reaction when a complaint is made.

If you run or manage a small business, you may be faced by an allegation of harassment and you need to take it seriously.  Dismissing claims as merely ‘banter’ can be both expensive and damaging to your business reputation, as this car dealership found out this week.  Investigate all allegations properly and – as importantly –  make it clear that inappropriate comments are not acceptable.

It doesn’t matter if the comment was not intended to be offensive, or that you can’t see anything wrong with it – in law the main concern is the perception of the individual. This doesn’t mean that every instance of an ill-judged comment is necessarily racist or sexist – case law is very clear that “it is… important not to encourage a culture of hypersensitivity or the imposition of legal liability in respect of every unfortunate phrase” – the point is that an employer must investigate a complaint properly.

And if you aren’t sure, take advice. There’s a world of difference between referring to a colleague as “The Producer” (because she is constantly telling her team that “she’ll put them in the picture”) and referring to her as “Sugar Tits”.

Humour is important in the workplace. Harassment isn’t. And remember, as I was once told by an Employment Lawyer, “Banter isn’t an excuse –  it’s an admission”. If you need more information, this piece may help you