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Ten Top Tips for Managing your Staff through Christmas

Whilst most of us await Christmas with a mixture of eager anticipation and dread, it is fair to say that for small employers, managing your business through the Christmas period can be a tricky business especially when staffing considerations of all kinds are thrown into the mix. Whether we’re talking about time off, staff cover, higher levels of sickness absence, the Christmas party, Christmas Gifts or the Christmas bonus, these things are fraught with potential problems…..so here are some tips to help you plan a smooth operation over the Christmas period.

1. Many businesses close over the Christmas period although, in recent years, more and more business owners have wanted to retain a degree of flexibility and to have the right to ask staff to come in over the Christmas break should the business need arise. So the simplest way to ensure that you can require your employees to come into work if you need to is to provide for this with an appropriate clause in your contract or staff handbook.

2. On the other hand, you may not wish your employees to work, but you don’t want to give them additional time off over and above their normal holiday entitlement – so inform your employees in their contract and under your holiday procedure that you will be holding back 3 or 4 days each year to be taken over the Christmas period. Yes, you can do this! The law specifies a minimum holiday entitlement each year, but you as an employer can determine when that holiday is taken.

3. Diversity. With our increasingly multi-cultural society, the chances are that you will be employing staff from various ethnic and religious backgrounds some of whom will not celebrate Christmas. Sensitivity to the religious beliefs of others in embedded in law and you need to be sure that you are not imposing upon staff members who may not wish to celebrate Christmas, nor making assumptions that because of this they may wish to provide cover whilst the rest of the staff are on holiday. Make sure that all staff are treated with the same consideration over the Christmas period.

4. Providing minimum cover. If you require a skeleton staff to be available over the Christmas break to deal with any business requirement. Make sure that you select carefully those who you want to work. You can start by asking for volunteers, but if that doesn’t work, set up a rota system each year which will then demonstrate that you are being fair to all your staff over this period.

5. The Christmas Party. We’ve heard a lot about the Christmas party and employers’ vicarious liability for the behaviour of their staff – but how do you ensure that your employees behave properly on an occasion which is designed to allow them to let their hair down, and what action should you take if it goes wrong? Make it clear to all employees standards of behaviour you expect at the Christmas party and also ensure that there is a senior person in attendance at the party with responsibility for dealing with any problems that may arise. Follow a standard disciplinary process with any employee who has not conformed to you express standards and treat the matter as you would any other occurring during working time.

6. Dealing with the hangover absences and duvet days can also be difficult around Christmas time. How do you deal with an employee who takes time off following a good night out? There’s no better cure for the hangover absence than a return to work interview. Make sure you carry this out as soon as the employee returns to work and make it very clear that you are monitoring absence and will deal with abuse of sickness absence provisions through the disciplinary procedure. You might also consider requiring employees to provide a medical certificate on the first day of any future absences. You may have to pay for it, but it is unlikely that the situation will occur again! If you pay company sick pay make sure you have a clause in your contract that allows you to withhold pay in the event of abuse of the company’s policy.

7. Gifts at Christmas. Many suppliers will shower your employees with gifts prior to the Christmas period as part of their marketing offensive. But, beware, recent anti-bribery legislation may mean that they are falling foul of the law if they accept them. Make sure you have a clear anti-bribery policy and that all staff are aware of it. Why not introduce a system whereby all gifts should be donated to a Company raffle which can be held just before the break for Christmas, and all proceeds go to a nominated charity?

8. The Christmas bonus. Giving a financial bonus at Christmas to your employees in acknowledgement of the good work they have done through the year is a pleasant gesture. However, make sure that it is clear to your employees that this bonus is awarded at the discretion of management and is not a contractual right. Do this by ensuring that an appropriate clause is put in the contract, or you will find yourself having to shell out bonuses f year, regardless of the performance of the company and your staff.

9. Getting a break yourself over Christmas. Yes, even you the business owner needs a break, but how much of a break will that be if you’re worrying about what is happening whilst you are away? Plan how cover is to be given, appoint one individual to take overall responsibility whilst you’re away, and make it clear to them what actions they need to take in the event of a real problem. Use the resources you have available to manage and deflect issues over this period, so that you can return refreshed and ready for a successful and prosperous New Year!

10. Getting things started in 2013. It always takes a while for staff to get moving again following the long Christmas break. Sometimes another week is lost at the beginning of January whilst your staff recover following the holiday. Having a briefing meeting on the first day back can help to re-orientate the staff and focus on the tasks and plans you have for your business in the coming year. This will help oil the wheels and inspire your staff onwards and upwards in 2013.

 

Swap Shares in your business for Employment Rights?

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As small business owners I am sure you will have heard the latest proposal being put forward by the government to encourage business to take on staff and play their part in the economic recovery.  This proposal comes towards the end of a year in which the government has been consulting with employers on changes to employment rights, and indeed making some piecemeal changes to legislation to help employers who wish to take on staff but have been too scared to do so in the past for fear of being unable to end the employment relationship without entering into costly disputes and possible litigation.

The proposal is that as business owners you will be able to enter into an agreement with your employees whereby you offer them shares in your business in exchange for them relinquishing their rights to make a claim against you for unfair dismissal, maternity leave and pay and redundancy rights and pay.  Both parties being happy with this deal, you will then enter into new employment relationships more readily and your business will grow and flourish as a result.

These proposals are another example of the government developing workplace policy on the premise that we are over-legislated in the area if employment and it is this that is preventing the growth of the private sector which should be leading us out of recession,  rather than the external economic forces that are preventing employers from generating the growth that would enable them to recruit more staff.

Whilst employers, particularly small employers, would no doubt welcome a redress by the government of the perceived imbalance of rights in favour of employees, these proposals do not appear to have been thought through and raise many questions about the status of employees who hold shares in the business, the rights of employees when the employment relationship ends, and the very real possibility that such shares may lose their value over time or be sold by employees in advance of this happening, that makes a nonsense of the government proposals.  We already have a number of examples, the obvious one being John Lewis, where all employees have a share in the business AND retain equal employment rights with all other non-shareholding employees.  So what on earth would be attractive in such a proposition for employees or prospective employees in the future?  And the other question has to be, would you want to give up a share in your business in return for reduced rights for your employees?

As with previous legislation that has hit the statute books this year, the proposals being promoted by George Osborne deal only with a limited number of rights of employees and suggests that the relinquishing of these rights will be sufficiently attractive to employers to encourage them to offer this sort of deal to prospective employees in the future.  What the proposals ignore, however, is that employers are far from protected by this proposal or the piecemeal reduction of unfair dismissal rights for employees.  There is a whole area of discrimination law that would be outside these proposals, and together with contract law and other exemptions, employers will still be exposed to expensive claims if the employment relationship goes wrong.  So yes, enter a deal with an employee in which they agree to give up their maternity rights.  They may then make a potentially more expensive claim against you for discrimination when it transpires that you have not approached other employees with the same deal.

As we have previously blogged in response to the Beecroft Report and other recent proposals to overhaul employment rights, we believe that the government is tackling these issues from the wrong end.  We firmly believe, and have witnessed with many clients, that entering into a fair and open relationship with employees, adopting best practice and ensuring that both parties understand their obligations to each other is far more likely to lead to a successful and productive employment relationship.  This, in turn, will motivate employees to be the best they can be which will, in turn, improve the bottom line for businesses.  Adopt the very best recruitment practices and get the right people for the job. Get your employment policies and procedures right and implement them.  Respect your employees and train and support them and then see how your business benefits and your bottom line improve.  All of this without reference to the unlikely possibility that you will end up in court should the employment relationship fail, is the key to business expansion and future success.

What do you think?  Let us know – take part in our short survey…

Olympic Flexibility

With so much going on this year with the Jubilee Celebrations, Euro 2012 and now the Olympics just around the corner, employers have had to juggle quite a bit when it has come to requests for leave which threaten to impact their business.

Speak to anyone in the street and you are likely to get a different response if you ask what the Olympics means to them.  The spectrum ranges from keen enthusiasm to downright irritation at the inconvenience of it all.

How ever you feel about it, the Olympics is an historic event and in order to keep your employees happy, get the work done and minimise the risk of inconvenience to your customers, you need to be prepared.  Planning leave, accommodating requests to watch certain events, monitoring use of mobile phones for updates or even watching entire events on smart phones whilst at work are the things that require some thought from employers and clear guidance from you on how such activities will be viewed.  So yes, be flexible but also be fair, and make sure your employees understand that you are prepared to accommodate their requests within reasonable limits but that you also expect them to respond by being flexible by ensuring that the disruption to your business is minimised.

ACAS have published some guidelines on how to best manage through the Olympic period go to the following link for this information http://www.acas.org.uk/index.aspx?articleid=3392, and you will see that the message seems to be, flexibility.

For further guidance on managing through the Olympics, contact jenny@jsconsult.co.uk

Employment Law Reform – What does it mean for small business?

The Government’s proposals for employment law reform that we have been drip fed  over the past few months now seem to be coming through as an avalanche as they look for ways to get the economy moving.  Apart from the confusion caused to my clients at the haphazard way information is being disseminated,  the proposals are being met with  tentative optimism by most of  my clients,  many of whom are running small businesses and trying desperately to keep their staff in work, despite their belief that the odds are stacked against them when it comes to employment law compliance.  Like much of what has been emanating from the walls of Downing Street since the coalition government took office in May 2010, I can’t help feeling that the sound bite proposals that are coming through on employment law reform are tackling the problem from the wrong end.

We have heard about the proposals to extend the qualifying period for unfair dismissal claims from one to two years, and only last month we heard that the abolition of the entire concept of unfair dismissal might be the way forward. We have now been told that the government is considering exempting employers with less than 10 employees from the unfair dismissal laws, so it seems little wonder that we are all confused!  Added to this are the proposals communicated to us by Vince Cable  to reduce consultation periods for large scale redundancies and to introduce fees (for those who can afford them), for employees bringing Employment Tribunal Claims.   As the vast majority of ET claims will be made by those who have lost their jobs, one wonders how many of them will fall into the exempt category when making such a claim.

It’s clear that the government have decided to introduce measures to try to ease the burden on the Employment Tribunal system which is currently creaking under the weight of an increasing number of outstanding claims, but isn’t their proposal to introduce compulsory mediation through ACAS  merely shifting the location of the bottleneck?

Last weekend further proposals emerged to reform the current medical certification of sickness process and to introduce, dare I say it, another quango (I thought we were getting rid of these), to assess the long term sick’s fitness, or otherwise to return to work.

More curious than this, the latest proposals include the concept of ‘protected conversations’ between employers and employees, as the solution to all employment disputes.  The fact is that ‘protected conversations’ lead nowhere in reality.  What does a boss say to his employee during such conversations that is going to make any difference to the outcome of what will necessarily become a formal situation if it is to progress any further?  Will an employer be able to deny the employee the opportunity to raise a grievance following such a conversation if the employee feels unhappy about what has been said to him?  Will an employee be unable to make a constructive dismissal claim if his employment is, to all intents and purposes, terminated whilst in such privileged discussion?

Whilst I believe that these proposals may well be giving employers a false sense of security, that they will no longer need to worry about how they hire and fire their staff, (what about discrimination and whistleblowing – still protected under the law from day one of employment and no signs of this legislation being modified under the current proposals), this whole debate is predicated upon a confrontational relationship between an employer and his employee, which, by some strange logic, the government seems to think will lead to employers feeling more comfortable about taking on staff and thereby boosting growth in the economy and solving our unemployment problems in one hit.

Whilst I applaud and embrace the recognition at last by the government that employers have for  too long been held almost powerless to act when their businesses have been at risk from poor performers or the abuse of sickness absence rules, these proposals are hardly conducive to building strong and positive workplace relationships that encourage loyalty, motivation and commitment from employees.  When you work from the premise that all employees are naturally bad, and therefore an authoritarian structure which places all power in the hands of the employer (all of whom must be naturally good, fair and trustworthy) is needed to control and maintain a compliant workforce, surely you must begin to wonder what century we are living in?

Maybe I am being old fashioned, but I would like to think that the starting point for recruiting new staff has to be a positive belief by both parties that the employment relationship will flourish and grow and that both parties will work together to ensure that this happens.  If we start the relationship by thinking ‘well if it doesn’t work out I can get rid’ costly mistakes will be made – the average cost to an employer of recruiting a new member staff is in excess of  £5,700 and that doesn’t take account of the induction and training required – that are hardly likely to help businesses to flourish and grow. The mutuality of obligation between employer and employee is surely the way we should be approaching this relationship, rather than attempting to reverse the balance of power and give all the authority back to the employer.  Most enlightened employers have known for years that success in business is only possible if you nurture and commit to your staff, so how is that going to work if all security and protection is taken away from employees who could be fired on the whim of their boss?  Is this really going to encourage the development and growth of business?

In the midst of all of this, Richard Branson having recently purchased Northern Rock at a knockdown price, courtesy of the British taxpayer, is now raising the profile of social responsibility and about how we should stop thinking in terms of a confrontational workplace but we should all be supporting each other at work, taking care of each other and our environment and developing a shard value culture – the future route to business success.   The profit motive is not what is needed to promote successful businesses in the future, says Branson, but  socially responsible employers who can demonstrate values and a culture that encourages people to want to work for them is the way forward.   How does this sit with the Government’s approach to Employment Law Reform?  Somehow it does, even in these debt stricken times, ring true that what motivates people to do a good job is changing – and it’s becoming less about what your employee can do for you, but what you can do for your employee.   So, picture an employer who wants to take on new staff having recently been released from the shackles of overbearing employment law compliance.  The employer may be congratulating himself on his high turnover of staff resulting from the ease with which he can now dismiss employees without fear of retribution – but how many potential employees would choose to work for him, knowing they were entering an environment of conflicting values from the start?

 

Since the recession of 2008 we have all in our own ways been brought up short by the realisation that we are living in a very different society to the one we have grown up in since the boom years of post-war Britain.  Since the boom years of the fifties and sixties we have come to believe that we are,  quite naturally, living in an ever expanding economy providing more and more opportunity and wealth than before, on a trajectory that was to continue forever.  We have had to re-assess our priorities and consider our values and what is really important to us, and that has led to a sea change in the way we now view the world.

Many  of my clients who have been forced to make redundancies are now working with much leaner teams, many of whom have sustained pay cuts that would have been unthinkable 5 years ago.  These businesses are now looking at ways to motivate their employees that don’t necessarily impact  the bottom line, and are coming up with a new culture and value system that is encouraging the employees to take a stake in the future of the business, and to help mould it into the type of organisation that reflects their true values.   It is largely an untrodden path that these clients are now following, but I am already getting reports that the staff are buying into this new culture, feel appreciated and influential in the decisions that the businesses are taking and are prepared to take the hits as well as the rewards that come with being passionate about something other than the size of their paypacket.

So when we talk about making it easier for employers , simply by making it easier for them to get rid of staff when things aren’t working well, is this really the answer to our economic ills?  How many bad recruitment decisions are going to be made by employers who know that they can just dismiss staff whenever they want to, how many employees will be afraid to take time off and limp into work being 50% productive,  lest they be sought out by the independent assessor to check if they are really sick?  How many employees will spend a huge amount of time worrying that they may lose their jobs at the drop of a hat, rather than devoting their energies to ensuring the business is the best it can be?  Surely, it has to be true that if you look after and trust people to do a good job for you, they are much more likely to do it well than if they are despising you for the power you have over them and their economic security.

So, whilst the reform of employment law is necessary to free employers to make the right decisions for the growth and development of their businesses, should we not be thinking about developing legislation that leaves both employers’ and employees on a more equal footing.? Yes, sure, employees should be expected to perform effectively in their roles and the painfully slow processes that exist currently to deal with poor performance does need a serious overhaul.  But an enlightened employer might be wanting to look in the mirror before dishing out sanctions and firing poor performers.  Have I recruited the right person for the job, have I created the conditions in which the employee works well, should I be encouraging the employee to contribute to my business decisions and  perhaps I should be working on strengths rather than weaknesses.  Is the employee proud or ashamed to be working in my Company?

For me, unsurprisingly, it always comes back to the same thing.  If you get the infrastructure right, recruitment, training and development right and put clear and reasonable policies and procedures in place, you are unlikely to find yourself in the position where you are going to be faced by confrontation and disputes that take you in the direction of the legal system of which we all live in fear.  Take care of your employees, nurture, develop and involve them in your business decisions; be fair, transparent and supportive in the way that you treat them and you are far less likely to be seeking out a ‘protected conversation’ or grabbing their personnel files in a moment of panic to find out how long they have been working for you!