Radical or Bureaucratic? Why Labour’s HR proposals may be both

With the current political turmoil in the UK, and the possibility that we may see a change in Government in the near future, this post looks briefly at the HR and employment related announcements made this month by the opposition and consider their effects on the profession. I should stress that I’m not looking at this from a political view – HR professionals (and businesses more widely) have a responsibility to ensure our organisations work within the law, whatever our personal views of a particular piece of legislation.

Five key announcements have been made by Labour’s John McDonnell in recent weeks, in a series of speeches.

1.       Ban ‘zero hours contracts’. I’ve written before that this probably wouldn’t solve the underlying problem – since employers would either go down the route of full casualisation, or offer ‘1 hour per week with the option to do more’ contracts. But from an HR perspective, other than the admin time caused by changing existing contractual arrangements, it might cause businesses to rethink their reason why they use these types of contracts.

2.       Raise the minimum wage to £10 per hour. Not really an issue from an HR perspective, as the current Government have previously said they want to raise the level to £9 per hour, this is more a political argument as to what level the minimum wage should be.

3.       Sectoral Collective Bargaining. Collective agreements still exist on an industry wide basis – not just in the public sector – in some sectors. (I still need to dig out my ‘pink book’ – below – occasionally). But given that union membership is at a low level, doesn’t exist in certain sectors and employers aren’t currently obliged to participate in sectoral bargaining even if they do recognise unions, this seems to be more of a long-term aim than a change that will have an immediate impact on the way companies interact with their staff.

4.       Right to paid leave for victims of domestic abuse. I don’t think anyone would disagree with the principle behind this (and we will shortly have to implement paid leave for child bereavement, so it’s not really an extra administrative task). But I can see a whole host of practical difficulties. Will individuals have to pre-declare to their employer that they are in an abusive relationship? At what point will the right kick in (physical abuse? Mental cruelty?)? What evidence will be needed? This isn’t to make light of a very serious issue, but it is a subject that requires sensitive handling from HR and simply setting it up a ‘procedure’ doesn’t seem to be the way forward. (I haven’t seen a policy document, simply the announcement, so if there is more detail on how this would work I’m happy to link to it).

5.       Compulsory Share Ownership for Employees. This issue attracted the most media attention, primarily because employers with over 250 staff would be ‘forced’ to give employees a percentage of shares (up to 10% over a period of time), allowing them to earn dividends on top of their wages. Employee shareholding is not a new concept, there are many companies that operate schemes that allow some or all employees to be given shares in the organisation. Nor are ‘compulsory’ schemes anything unusual – companies are already required to enrol employees in a pension scheme and to make financial contributions to it, while a chunk of profits is already taken from larger companies in the form of the apprenticeship levy. In one sense the idea is simply a different approach to that taken by the Cameron government, but with the same aim – to allow workers a greater stake in their employer. From an HR perspective –  having spent several years working in an employee owned business – the major immediate challenges will be for learning and development professionals who will need to devise training on the different roles and responsibilities of an employee and a shareholder, and responding to the argument “you can’t sack me, I’m a shareholder” in disciplinary hearings.

And while we shouldn’t undersestimate the possible cultural effects of these proposals, the devil will be in the detail for most of them. Will they go the way of the ill-fated “Statutory Dismissal and Grievance Procedures” introduced – and quickly abolished – in the early 2000s? Or will they become just part of the regulatory environment for HR, like maternity leave or compulsory redundancy consultation? Only time (and the result of the next general election) will tell.

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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

 

 

 

Burying our head in the sand

There’s been a lot of reaction to the concept of ‘best practice’ in HR over the last few years –  the idea being rejected primarily because no-one can identify what these best practices are, nor is there much (if any) evidence that they work. As a result, the alternative ‘best fit’ model has gained in popularity.

Superficially, best fit has much to commend it. Our HR practices are adapted to the size, sector and most importantly the strategy of our organisation. The approach that might be taken in a large corporate services business is not the same as an SME in a manufacturing sector. But we need to take care.

One of the most well-known best-fit theories  (Schuler and Jackson 1987) suggests that when a business is cost-sensitive, HR’s approach should be to control and reduce costs. This means not just keeping wages at the lowest level to attract qualified staff, but also using very tightly defined job roles (so there is no scope for ambiguity or employee discretion), using ‘precarious’ labour (what we now tend to refer to as the gig economy), little or no training and development, and short-term performance goals. Ryanair is often cited as the ‘classic’ example of this approach in the UK.

The dangers of this approach should be obvious – and if they aren’t then yesterday’s article in the Financial Times, which exposed the working practices in the garment industry in Leicester should be top of your reading list. Taken to its extreme, it leads to unsafe working conditions, below minimum wage levels and exploitation on a large scale.

“But what can we do?” I can hear many HR professionals saying. After all these businesses won’t have HR.  But our ‘just legal but arguably unethical’ HR practices do lead to other companies taking the next step across that line. And with little current enforcement of regulations it’s all too easy to get away with ignoring basic employment law.

It is, as Canadian HR writer Jane Watson describes it, a “Wicked Problem” – and demands the same approach she suggests to tackling it. HR can’t solve the issue on its own, but neither can we pretend that we are not partly responsible for this state of affairs.