Like many football fans, I watched events at Old Trafford yesterday – where the match was abandoned before kick-off after a “suspect device” was found in the stadium – with initial concern, followed by relief that the incident appeared to be a false alarm, and finally a degree of amusement when it was revealed that the mysterious package was in fact a dummy bomb left over from an exercise to train sniffer dogs in the ground several days previously. Several comments on social media at the end of the day expressed the view that they hoped the individual(s) responsible to be fired this morning.
But if your staff were responsible for such an incident, would you be considering dismissing them today? After all, we all like someone to blame, and there’s no doubt that the incident caused massive inconvenience to a lot of people. Indeed, local politicians seem to have jumped on the scapegoating bandwagon
But consider it this way. That error gave the emergency services the best way of testing their disaster plans in the event of a suspected bomb. They successfully evacuated 75000 people from the ground, put in place public transport plans to get them away from the area, and ensured that everything was done without panic or problem. But I’m also sure that they will be reviewing today what worked less well and making changes to resolve problems.
No matter how well planned your training, people will always behave differently when they think the event is actually happening (compare what happens during a planned fire drill and how people behave when they think there is real fire). So rather than blame, we should consider yesterday as a very high profile learning experience. The individuals concerned with leaving the dummy bomb behind will never again forget to carry out basic checks, while the emergency services will probably never have a better opportunity to safely test their procedures in a real life situation.
So blame, or thanks? Which would your company go for?
Top accountancy firm PwC hit the headlines yesterday when a temporary receptionist was sent home for not wearing high heels. While it may not appear related, the situation has many parallels with the famous case of whether a Christian can wear a cross in work – something which went all the way to the European Court to decide.
So can an employer have a dress code? And can it include a requirement to wear high heels?
The answer to the first question is yes – but you need to have a reason why you want one.
If the reason is health and safety, things are relatively simple. If employees must wear hi-vis jackets, safety shoes or tie long hair back to avoid it being caught in machinery, then you are fine with enforcing rules – and indeed the vast majority of employees would understand and accept this.
Equally, if it is a condition of employment to wear a uniform, you’re also on safe ground. Lots of people wear uniforms to identify themselves either to customers or to show the company they are representing. While it’s perfectly possible to be a courier, security guard or airline pilot without wearing a uniform, it’s a requirement of most employers in those sectors that their staff do so.
Where things can become a bit more nebulous is when you want to enforce a dress standard to promote a “corporate image”. You need to ensure that any dress code is non-discriminatory (particularly on gender and religious grounds) and proportionate to what you are trying to achieve. So if you want to say that employees must wear smart business dress this is fine (and you can define this as a suit and tie for men, and a business suit for women). But the reason for this needs to be clear – for example because it would be expected by business contacts, customers etc. What you need to consider is the culture and the expectations of your company and the industry it operates in. Does it really affect the performance of your call centre if staff wear jeans, t-shirts and trainers?
So the answer to question 2 – can a dress code require a female employee to wear high heels? – is a “no” on sex discrimination grounds and a “why would it be necessary?” on the grounds of being reasonable.
Like many things related to HR, the key question for business owners is whether the dress code rules actually serve a business purpose or are they just petty restrictions?
There’s been much schadenfreude in the exposure of two former high ranking government ministers, Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw, touting themselves for business and offering to sell their “influence” to a fictitious Chinese company. (In the interests of political neutrality one is from the Conservatives, one from Labour). It’s provoked a debate about whether MPs should be banned from holding second jobs.
MPs aren’t employees. But the same issue of whether an employee can hold a second job is one I am often asked. So what is the situation?
Firstly, you can’t impose a blanket ban on individuals doing work when they aren’t working for you. Individuals have a right to spend their time outside work in whatever way they wish, which includes earning money. However, you do have a right to ensure that they are not doing anything which could damage your business –so you can legitimately prevent them from working for a competitor, or other organisation which might want access to your commercial information (a supplier or customer for example). As with all these things, should matters be challenged by the employee, you’d need to show that there was some clear impact on your business.
You can also prevent an employee from doing other work if it would stop them from working for you. So if someone wants to do an evening job starting at 6 but isn’t due to finish their shift with you till 7, then you can of course also prevent them from doing this.
The third key area is Health and Safety, particularly (and ironically given how much some employers seem to hate them) via the Working Time Regulations. These lay down the rules about the maximum 48 hour working week, rest breaks and time between shifts. If a member of staff works 35 hours a week for you (9 to 5 Mon-Fri say) and then wants to do 20 hours a week in a bar (say a four hour shift Wednesday/Thursday/Friday/Saturday/Sunday) you could try to prevent them from doing so on the grounds that they are working 55 hour weeks possibly without sufficient rest between shifts. Again, if you can show a clear safety risk (they operate machinery for example) it’s easier to do this.
With the advent of flexible working, zero hours contracts (where all parties have pledged to outlaw exclusivity clauses that prevent people from working for someone else), increased numbers of part-time roles and the growing number of “in-work poor” mean that for many employers, their staff may well have more than one job. Managing such situations may become increasingly common.
It’s impossible not to feel sympathy for Doug Paulley, the wheelchair user who was denied access to a bus because the wheelchair space was occupied by a passenger with a pushchair who refused to move. And I’ve no doubt that many will see the court victory by First Bus as evidence that disability rights are pushed to one side when big business comes to call.
But those criticising First Bus (of whom there are many on social media) need to remember one thing. It’s not some highly paid executive, or faceless corporation, who would be responsible for enforcing the ruling, had the court upheld Mr Paulley’s claim. Individual bus drivers are the ones who would have to police the decision, and they are the ones who would have to face the abuse from passengers if they delay the journey while trying to resolve the situation. And what is the driver expected to do if the passenger refuses to move? Physically eject them from the bus? Can you imagine the headlines?
Bus drivers – and others who provide frontline public services – already face a good deal of both verbal and physical abuse from their customers. From an HR and employment perspective, we have a responsibility to protect the health and safety of our employees. That might be a minor “admin” task for those who work in offices but is a big deal if your staff do a more dangerous job.
The real culprit here is not the bus company but society’s attitudes toward the disabled. The whole situation would have probably been avoided, not just if the other passenger had not been selfish but if the rest of the bus passengers had made it clear that her behaviour was socially unacceptable. Passing legislation, and then expecting low-paid frontline employees to implement it, is no substitute for basic good manners or an unselfish attitude.