There has been a view for many years that the UK is governed by what has been termed the “Good chaps” theory of government – that there are certain unwritten rules and conventions that are understood by all parties and which everyone works within, even if there is profound disagreement on the issue at hand. Some commentators argue that this has disappeared in recent years as certain politicians have wilfully disregarded these understandings in order to gain a particular advantage or objective. (It was also in evidence in the Donald Trump years in the US, where Trump would say or do things that shocked people, not necessarily by their intent or outcome but the fact that he said or did them at all)
The world of work in the UK had a similar Trump type moment yesterday when P&O Ferries announced via Zoom that they were sacking 800 UK crew immediately and intended to replace them with cheaper foreign staff via an agency. Much of the shock and anger from politicians, HR professionals and others was not so much around the decision (other companies in the past have announced far bigger changes or lay-offs) but the fact that they did so in a way in which broke all the unwritten rules of employment relations in the UK. Even if they can legally do something in a particular way, most companies would approach a decision like this with an understanding of how they would be expected to behave.
P&O are not the first company to break these norms – in fact it has always gone on, even in the days when trade unions were stronger. But they are a high profile well-established ‘household’ name and consequently the expectation would be that they would do things ‘properly’.
What P&O have also done is shown how weak UK employment law is in protecting employees from an employer determined to behave in this manner. They will have factored in not only the cost of 800 potential unfair dismissal claims (all of which they are likely to lose) but also the fact that it will take 18 months -2 years before a tribunal hearing takes place (and even then they could refuse to pay, meaning individuals would have to take further legal action to enforce their claims). By which time many ex-employees will have given up and the news story will have died down.
So what is to be done? More, and/or stronger employment law is the cry from certain sections. But as has been pointed out when there is a call for the UK to have a written constitution to resolve the reliance on ‘good chaps’, this wouldn’t solve all the problems – and would take time to go through parliament.
A better solutions, in my view, would be for existing laws to be more easily applied – not only by tribunals being made faster and their judgments more easily enforced, but by the use of a properly funded statutory body similar to the Health and Safety Executive) with powers to hold bad employers to account. We already have a pretty impotent “Director of Labour Market Enforcement” within the Civil Service so the basic structure is there.
But also, HR professionals need to stop living in their unitarist utopia and accept that there is a need to recognise that employees often want different outcomes from their employment relationship. And so we need to be more open to negotiation , compromise and the role of trade unions or other employee representatives. That means going back to the ‘good chaps’ theory of employee relations, that there are unwritten rules that we all follow. P&O may be a particularly egregious example but they are in many respects the ‘tip of the iceberg’ for modern HR and business practices.