Left Holding the Baby (and other employment problems)

There are certain questions that crop up regularly among my small business clients, and while every circumstance is slightly different, here’s some advice on how to approach some of these common issues if they occur in your organisation

I’ve an employee who always seems to need time off because of problems with her toddler. Last week she took two days off because he had an upset stomach. Her colleagues are getting a bit fed up with covering for her.

First of all, your employee has a legal right to take unpaid time off if an emergency situation arises with a dependant. This right is restricted to genuine emergencies (for example, if nursery ring to say the child is sick and needs to be collected) and not known issues (such as a hospital appointment for the child), and is also restricted to the time required to put in place alternative arrangements – which depending on the circumstances might be anything from an hour to a day – not to provide the care itself. It would be unusual for an ‘emergency’ to last more than a day. If the individual does need more time off, you may be prepared to allow them to take holidays or some other arrangement, but this is at your discretion.

If the employee seems to have ‘emergencies’ regularly, you can discuss with them the situation and look at ways of resolving it. Current case law suggests that the employee is not entitled to an unlimited use of this right. Consider ways that you might be able to get around the situation – for example short-term changes to working hours, or some other flexible arrangement. In the case of childcare particularly, you might want to discreetly find out if the employee’s partner could assist more (often in these cases it is the mum who ends up dealing with the problem every time, not the dad).

My business trades a lot with the EU and we’re badly affected by Brexit. A few members of our staff are vocally pro-Brexit. Can I sack them for promoting something which is damaging their employer?

Probably not. Although political views are not a ‘protected characteristic’ under the Equality Act, if someone feels they have been dismissed for holding a political opinion they can make an unfair dismissal claim even if they don’t have the normal two years’ service. You would have to have to show that dismissal was a reasonable response – and given that it’s unlikely that you can directly blame your employees for the current situation, it would be difficult to substantiate this.

What you can do is make it clear that people should not be using the workplace to promote political views. Someone who repeatedly broke this rule could be taken through the disciplinary procedure and ultimately dismissed. Make sure you apply the rule consistently though, not just against views that you disagree with!

I’m closing down part of my business in a few months and told the one employee in this area he’d be losing his job, and that he would be doing lower paid work somewhere else in the business. He got very irate and walked off the job, and has never returned. Now he’s threatening constructive dismissal – does he have a case?

Unless you were particularly abrupt or unpleasant in the way you told him or did it in a humiliating way (announcing it unexpectedly in front of colleagues for example), it’s unlikely. You are however putting him at risk of redundancy and needed to consult with him – including on whether the alternative work is suitable (if lower paid, it’s unlikely to be). That could leave you at risk of an unfair dismissal claim if the employee has more than 2 years’ service. As he’s walked off before you could undertake proper consultation, or even give him his legal notice, you are likely to have a defence against a claim, but it could get messy and time-consuming. If he does make a claim, consider settling through ACAS early conciliation or via a Settlement Agreement.

When Love Breaks Down

Listeners to radio soap The Archers (of which I am one) have been following for the last few weeks the ongoing affair between Elizabeth Pargetter, owner of Lower Loxley, a stately home now used as a Conference venue, and her general manager, Roy Tucker. In true soap opera fashion, Roy’s wife Hayley also works at Lower Loxley, as nanny/childminder to Elizabeth’s children. The affair ended with Elizabeth – much to Roy’s dismay – not only finishing their relationship but suggesting that Roy find another job.

Workplace relationships are an area that can be fraught for any employer, but particularly small ones where key staff can blur the boundaries between the professional and the personal. It’s not that they are uncommon either – it’s estimated that a significant proportion of personal relationships start in work (some even say a majority). Handling the breakdown of a relationship, especially between a “boss” and a “subordinate” can create many problems for a business.

Could Elizabeth sack Roy? Although she was very careful to say initially that she was not doing so, she might well have legitimate grounds for dismissal, under what is known as “some other substantial reason”. By giving Roy a period of paid leave of absence – often known as gardening leave – she’s making it clear that they can no longer work together. However, her subsequent actions of offering Roy’s job to his temporary replacement before finalising matters with him, and failing to follow any sort of process, have given him grounds for a claim of unfair dismissal (leaving aside the issue of whether he could afford to bring a claim). In practice, this is exactly the sort of situation that an employer and employee should try to resolve via a Settlement Agreement – a confidential and legally binding agreement to end an employment relationship – thus avoiding both embarrassing publicity for the business and personal information being made public.

But what about Hayley? Would Elizabeth and she be able to maintain a working relationship, especially as Hayley has now discovered the true reason for Roy’s late nights at the office? Again, Elizabeth might be able to use the “some other substantial reason” argument for dismissing her, but I suspect her case would be much weaker unless Hayley started behaving in an inappropriate manner. Hayley herself has quite understandably stated that she doesn’t really want to work with Elizabeth in the future. Here once again, a settlement agreement might be the logical way forward, unless Hayley resigns in a fit of pique.

Whatever happens – and at the time of writing it remains an unresolved issue – it will be an expensive fling for all concerned. And while The Archers is fiction, the consequences are likely to be the same if something like this happened in your business. It’s a worthwhile reminder of what the “Human” in Human Resources really means.