REUTERS | Pedestrians walk to work in downtown Los Angeles, California May 13, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Blake (UNITED STATES - Tags: CITYSCAPE BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTR3OZX1
REUTERS | Pedestrians walk to work in downtown Los Angeles, California May 13, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Blake (UNITED STATES - Tags: CITYSCAPE BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTR3OZX1

ESG (environmental, social and governance) is a drum that everyone is now rightly beating.  With COP26, sewage leaks and climate change ever-present in news headlines, we could be forgiven for thinking right now that it’s all about the “E”. Well, it isn’t. 

Now don’t get me wrong, the “E” is high priority, but an organisation’s social impact and approach to governance also needs to be high on the priority list as each element of ESG relies on the other in order to be truly effective. The five points below highlight just how important a role HR departments can play in an organisation’s ESG credentials. 

Working practices 

Working practices have a huge impact on an organisation’s social footprint. An organisation’s approach to issues such as diversity and inclusion, health and wellbeing, flexible working, family rights, annual leave and speaking up all leave an indelible mark on their employees, which is then taken back into the family, the community and society as a whole. Organisations’ reputations often speak for themselves. 

HR departments play a key role in ensuring that the right policies are in place to govern all working practices. They are there to provide advice on meeting not just legal obligations, but also on supporting the achievement of an organisation’s goals and ensuring that the organisation does “the right thing”. This means being able to challenge business decisions and playing an integral part in all board decisions. 

And of course, environmental matters should be built into all these policies and practices, too. 

Diversity and equality 

Every part of an organisation should be focused on the importance of diversity, inclusion and equality. HR will however be a key player in areas essential to ensuring diversity, inclusion and equality such as recruitment, promotion and pay, not only promoting diversity from within but also engaging with the local community in furthering social mobility. 

HR will also be able to ensure that the right processes are in place to enable wider engagement through building clear diversity and inclusion plans, setting targets and creating appropriate internal working groups and forums. 

Remuneration and incentives 

Let’s face it, we all know we should do more. However, HR and Reward teams can help with formulating the carrot to really help drive an organisation’s approach to ESG. ESG issues can be built into remuneration and incentive programmes and also appraisal systems to ensure that people are encouraged to do the right thing in the right way. 

Training 

None of these points matter of course unless the preaching is practised. Training (and proper training, not tick-box exercises) is fundamental to ensuring this all happens. HR will most likely be responsible for learning and development. It goes wider, though; what we learn at work we take into the wider world. Everything from resilience workshops through to technical skills increase an employee’s opportunity to contribute in the workplace and translate into wider societal gains. 

Data 

Employers hold a lot of data related to the points raised above. This data can be used constructively to identify risk, areas for improvement and help formulate plans to remediate them. Without this data, and HR teams to collate and provide it, ESG programmes will miss the mark. 

REUTERS |

The UK labour market is experiencing an unprecedented shortage of workers, causing supply chain chaos and economic uncertainty. Recruitment for both permanent and temporary jobs is more challenging than it has even been for some industry sectors and the haulage industry is perhaps where this has been most clearly visible. 

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) reports that the food and drink, haulage, care, warehouse and storage, construction, manufacturing and hotels have seen the most significant challenges since the re-opening of the economy following the national restrictions on business operations. 

Why has this happened? 

The two primary reasons are Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic. These two seismic events have had a colossal impact on the UK economy. The pandemic caused national and international restrictions on trade and movement and at the same time, Brexit created restrictions on the availability of workers across the economy. These two events happening almost simultaneously has created a shock to the national and global economy. 

The rush to re-open post-pandemic has caused bottlenecks in supply chains for goods and services and the worker shortage that has arisen as a consequence, provides further frustration to the economic recovery.  

Brexit was always going to create challenges for those industry sectors that relied heavily on migrant workers, but the pandemic has undoubtedly compounded this significantly, making planning and mitigation all the more difficult.  

Many businesses have changed business models during the pandemic, including a significant shift to remote working. Those who returned from furlough in the autumn of 2021 needed reintegrating, refreshing and in some cases, upskilling upon their return from many months out of the workplace. Some have not returned, or have elected to change their priorities and work life balance, particularly those put off by working environments notorious for poor pay and conditions. 

How has this affected other parts of the economy? 

As well as directly through the supply chain, these gaps and strains have caused a ripple effect throughout the economy. There is reluctance to invest, as well as hesitation over budgeting and forecasting. Shortages means an increase in demand, which transfers into increase in costs.  

Nine million workers were furloughed at the peak of the pandemic which demonstrates the vulnerability of certain sectors, notably hospitality, tourism and close contact service environments. More than 50% of the total of the air passenger transport workforce was furloughed in 2020/2021 and there have been large scale redundancies throughout the last 18 months. 

The Chancellor has reported tax rises in the autumn budget and it is becoming evident to experts that the fiscal landscape is unlikely to recover as quickly as predicted in a post-pandemic, post-Brexit UK economy. 

What are the solutions? 

  1. Visas and work permits

While large scale migration neither causes, nor solves labour shortages, it can help with localised or temporary shortages. The granting of visas to international HGV applicants would ensure that the supply chain, particularly for key products such as food, is able to get moving. Expanding the Shortage Occupation List to enable priority work permits to be granted would also help, although nurses remain on that list and NHS England has reported in excess of 90,000 vacancies.  

  1. Improve pay and conditions

It has been widely reported that many HGV drivers received pay rises in the summer and autumn of 2021. Pay alone however, is not enough when the working environment is responsible for a high turnover of staff. Workers will be attracted by safe working environments, adequate breaks, greater flexibility and suitable facilities, which are essential to ensure that suitably skilled workers apply and remain in key jobs. 

  1. Recruit differently

By analysing the methods and channels of recruitment, employers can understand how they can appeal to a wider pool of applicants. Making use of apprenticeships and intern arrangements are alternatives and may come with government subsidies. Anyone with an appropriate drivers’ licence was written to in a recruitment drive for HGV drivers, which may seem a little desperate, but also provides an example of targeting potential applicants differently. 

  1. Training

The attributes existing workers have that are valuable, including knowledge of the company culture, loyalty and their skills and experiences, make them worth investing in. They may have transferrable skills to fill the gaps needed for operational recovery across the business. Providing for career development, skills and educational investment will help with retention of ambitious workers. 

  1. Patience

Recruitment bottlenecks are inevitable as all sectors and businesses actively recruit at the same time. This will take time, but is not a permanent barrier to finding suitable applicants to fill vacancies. 

  1. Working differently

By cutting out unnecessary tasks or touch points, businesses can find more efficient ways to deliver the same output with more limited resources. Investment in automation and greener technologies, or by outsourcing parts of an operation to agencies or companies who have a larger pool of resources, can provide both short and long term solutions to the current shortages. 

Is the end in sight? 

The landscape is improving. The number of employees on payroll is already back to pre-pandemic levels at just over 29 million. This is despite the number of reported vacancies being around 1 million in August 2021, rising 25% in the previous three months across all sectors. This suggests that employers are actively seeking to recruit and struggling to do so.  

Shortages of skills, particularly in low paid jobs, is more open to interpretation as to whether this is a shortage of skills, or of desire to do these jobs. It is arguable that pay and conditions are responsible for the shortages, rather than necessarily a shortage of personnel. This isn’t to say that there has been a dramatic shift of worker power, but the evolution of work represents greater choice for workers.  

There is no quick fix. The pandemic has given people a new perspective on flexibility and working remotely. It has changed habits and priorities and the pool from which to recruit has diminished post-Brexit. These events will have a long term, irreversible impact on the UK labour market and businesses will need to adapt if they are going to succeed in a newly shaped, global economy.

REUTERS |

Businesses are preparing for the new post-pandemic era where some form of return to office is very much front of mind. Although it would be a brave company to request a full-blown return to office five times a week so soon after the lifting of restrictions, we are seeing a much more proactive stance being taken where as much of “normal office life” as possible is being encouraged and implemented.

The pandemic has driven a wedge between the employee’s ideal working pattern and what the business demands of its employees. How long this wedge will continue remains to be seen, but for now this difference means only one thing: if staff do not like the new return to office rules, they will raise a flexible working request.

This might come in various forms, such as working at home for longer periods to varying the working hours or requests to work from home full time as they have done during most of the pandemic.

Is a day-one right a good idea?

Broadly, for any variation to the existing working pattern (whether as to time or location), the employee would need to make a flexible working request. A request can only be made by an employee (not consultants or agency workers) who has:

  • Been employed continuously for 26 weeks at the time of the request.
  • Not made a flexible working request in the preceding 12 months.

The request must also meet the prescribed requirements as set out under section 80F(2) of the Employment Rights Act 1996 (ERA 1996) and regulation 4 of the Flexible Working Regulations 2014 (SI 2014/1398).

If the current government consultation on flexible working becomes law, then the requirement to wait for six months before becoming eligible to apply will be removed. In the present climate, anyone applying for a new role may look to negotiate some form of flexible working (including, most popularly, home working for at least some of the week) as a condition of joining. This means employers are having to negotiate flexible working pre-employment, so a day-one right is not as dramatic as first envisaged.

What are the employer’s obligations?

If the employer intends to accept the flexible working request in its entirety, formal procedures become moot. However this is unlikely in many cases, which means it will need to follow the minimum procedural steps. The employer must:

  • Deal with the request in a reasonable manner.
  • Notify the employee of the decision within the decision period of three months.
  • Only refuse a request based on one or more of the statutory grounds.

(Section 80G(1)(b), ERA 1996.)

Requests should be dealt with in a reasonable manner, including meeting with the employee to discuss the request and allowing the employee to be accompanied to such meetings by a colleague or trade union representative.

Although appeal is not part of the statutory requirement, it is strongly advised that the employer provides an appeal procedure if rejecting the request. Allowing the employee to appeal and meeting with the employee to discuss the reason for the rejection will go towards the reasonableness requirement.

Match-up between the request and the company

The central argument consistently run by employees is that they have worked well during the pandemic, so why can this not carry on? The starting point is what the employer’s current policy is on returning to work. Since the lifting of restrictions on 19 July 2021, most employers have implemented hybrid measures where anything between 20% to 80% of the time is spent at home and the rest at work, depending on industry and sector.

The reality for most employers is that any further variation to their current policy will have to be dealt with strictly and consistently, so that flexible working does not run wild. To do this, employers will have to carefully balance the two factors: statutory grounds for refusal, on the one hand, and risk of inviting (primarily) a discrimination claim, on the other. (Failure to deal with the request itself can result in a compensation award of up to eight weeks’ pay by the employment tribunal.)

One of the core principles to draw out from case law is to avoid rejecting on technical grounds (for example, because the employee did not date the request), as doing so could invite other more serious claims (other than the failure to follow the statutory procedure) such as discrimination or constructive dismissal (or both). Requests on health grounds should also be considered carefully.

Whose side is the law on?

The current statutory regime for refusal (as well as the decision period) does give employers plenty of room for manoeuvre, but it is important to accurately record the factual bases for rejecting a request. What the employer wants to avoid is to allow the request on hearing an appeal because it did not properly investigate the facts. Bear in mind that until a decision is made either way, the employee is required to work in line with their pre-existing contractual provisions.

Another issue to consider is trial periods. There is no statutory obligation to offer a trial period, but the employee may argue that it was unlawful not to. If the employee requests a trial period but the employer decides otherwise, it is advisable to explain the reasons in the decision letter. If the employer can support its reasons with one of the statutory reasons for refusal, then all the better.

REUTERS | Toby Melville

In IX v WABE eV (Cases C804/18 and C341/19) EU:C:2021:594, the ECJ recently ruled that a ban on all visible signs of political, philosophical and religious belief could be justified by a policy of political, philosophical and religious neutrality in a particular workplace (a non-denominational school in Hamburg). It was made clear that a “neutrality” policy by an employer may represent a legitimate aim (although proportionality would have to be shown about the means for achieving it), as could a policy of “avoiding social conflict”. Essentially, it was not discriminatory to ask a Muslim member of the teaching staff not to wear a headscarf, and to discipline her for refusing to remove it, because the school and the municipality were fostering the individual and free development of children which could be undermined by wearing religious dress and symbols in front of them. The same rule did not apply to those in head office. 

We could talk about the case law on the limits of being able to manifest your religion in the workplace, or the competing strands that call for protection on the diversity front (I agree that this case represents the erosion of the prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief through elevation of the rights of employers and, in this case, parents. So much for Eweida v United Kingdom [2013] ECHR 37). But I’d like to consider what it means for corporations increasingly to be defining what is an acceptable and desirable way for us to be expressing our ideology. 

This used to be (and still is) one of the remits of the state. As it was pointed out in the famous case of R (Begum) v Denbigh High School Governors [2006] UKHL 15 (about why a school uniform policy banning the jilbab was justified), part of the role of the state in the context of education is to enable children to choose the ideological space they wish to occupy, as between the dominant culture of their families and the dominant culture in society:

“A mandatory policy that rejects veiling in state educational institutions may provide a crucial opportunity for girls to choose the feminist freedom of state education over the patriarchal dominance of their families. Also, for the families, such a policy may send a clear message that the benefits of state education are tied to the obligation to respect women’s and girls’ rights to equality and freedom” (Professor Frances Radnay in “Culture, Religion and Gender” [2003] 1 International Journal of Constitutional Law 663, cited in Denbigh).

As corporations become more ideologically involved, attaching ethical allegiances to particular causes and organisations around sustainability, diversity and ethical labour standards, they invite workers to champion and celebrate certain causes, and to become vocal about supporting sponsored company values. Think of all the different symbols that have become commonplace as something to be shown and worn in the workplace: a pink wristband, a rainbow, a yellow ribbon, a moustache in November (you could think of them as acceptable dress code).

But are we at risk of being homogenised, in terms of our identities at work, if we are presented with predetermined “good causes” which we are invited to sign up to? What is wrong with an invite, you might say, no one is compelled to do anything. I suppose I am asking where the space is to work out, like the hypothetical girl in the Denbigh case example, where you stand with regard to your own personal dominant culture, and the corporation’s dominant culture, and to not always know where you stand.

The idea of the corporation as being the expression of human values, rather than a mere legal personality for Companies House purposes, is a relatively recent phenomenon but we seem to accept it has always been this way. Interestingly, many organisations now put “passionate” and “creative” at the heart of their search for candidates, which would not have been the case 20 years ago when strength of conviction was regarded as something private. Like an ideal love-match (possibly forged by an algorithm), the passionate worker and the passionate employer are destined to meet and set the world on fire. But what if the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity?

Could there be too much pressure for individuals to take on corporate ideology at the expense of the many ordinary aspects of their humanity, such as the ability to question, doubt and not know? Qualities which, according to a recent report on the robotisation of work, could make them more employable in future?

We are used to thinking of dress codes as something imposed by employers, for employees to conform to or not, with the debate usually centring around a person’s right to freedom to express or manifest their belief and the employer’s right to police individual expression in the interests of conducting business and serving their customers. But we are less used to the idea of the corporation itself being the sheer embodiment of a dress code which may offend the idea of space or neutrality within the workforce (and bear in mind that the absence of belief is capable of protection in law).

We are used to thinking of employers as wanting, potentially, to pursue a policy of neutrality, based on ethos or customer profile. But what if neutrality is the desired safe space for a significant group of employees in a workplace, not because they are discriminatory or indifferent to value-based agendas, but because they express their values differently to the ways identified by the corporation as appropriate and desirable?

The avoidance of social conflict was cited in WABE as a potential legitimate aim for an employer pursuing a policy of neutrality. But it seems that corporations are sailing right into the headwinds of social conflict by taking up so much ideological space as a core activity. By becoming the gatekeepers of appropriate expression of values and belief, they have to take a stand, or not, or be judged by their silence.

All views expressed are the author’s own.

Shireen Shaikh, Senior PSL, Taylor Wessing.

REUTERS | Benoit Tessier

The UK government has recently published its long-awaited response to its 2019 consultation on measures to combat sexual harassment in the workplace and strengthen existing legal protections. 

Most significantly, the government has committed to introducing a new proactive duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace and to reintroduce protections from third-party harassment. It is also likely to extend the time limits for bringing claims under the Equality Act 2010 (EqA), but this is still being considered.  

The response is very light on detail about how these legislative changes will be implemented. Set out below are the headlines of the government’s response and what lies ahead for employers “as soon as parliamentary time allows”.  

Proactive duty to prevent sexual harassment 

The government intends to introduce legislation which requires employers to take positive, proactive steps to prevent sexual harassment. Currently, employers are under no proactive duty to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. However, if an incident has taken place and an individual makes a claim, an employer will potentially be liable unless it can show it took “all reasonable steps” to prevent the sexual harassment.   

The main findings of the consultation were that many respondents were supportive of the new duty to prompt employers to take positive steps to prevent harassment. The #MeToo movement made it clear that existing laws with after-the-event liability were not enough and that more is needed to drive lasting cultural change. 

The government has said it anticipates that the new duty will require employers to take all reasonable steps to prevent harassment. Under this reformulation of existing laws, an employer would still be required to take reasonable steps (as they are now, assuming they want to be able to defend any claims) but could potentially be liable for failing to take preventative action without the need for an incident to have occurred.  

The response refers to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) existing power to enter into legally binding agreements with employers who are found to be liable for breaches of the EqA and that there may be scope for “further EHRC action in this area”. It could be possible that employers find themselves the subject of enforcement action by the EHRC based on lack of policies, training or other steps to prevent sexual harassment, even if no incident has occurred. It is however anticipated that an incident would still need to have taken place before an individual could make a claim.  

The scope of this new duty will be clarified by a statutory code of practice, developed by the EHRC. Many respondents advocated that the steps themselves should be explicitly outlined, but the government has said this would remove the flexibility to take a proportionate approach. What taking all reasonable steps will involve will vary according to an employer’s size and resources. The government wants to motivate employers to put in place practices and policies which respond to the needs of their specific organisation, rather than creating a checkbox exercise.  

The response does not state whether the preventative duty will apply to all forms of harassment under the EqA, or whether protections against sexual harassment will be elevated over and above other forms of harassment. The original consultation paper referred to discussing options that would apply equally to all forms of harassment. Further clarity on this point is awaited.  

Legal protections against third-party harassment 

The government also intends to reintroduce protections against third-party harassment in the workplace. Historically, employers could be liable for harassment of their employees by third parties in the workplace (for example, a customer or supplier) under the “three strikes rule”, if the employee had been harassed on two prior occasions. This was repealed in 2013. It remains unclear in what form this protection will be reintroduced, but the government has confirmed that alongside this employer liability, it will introduce the defence of having taken all reasonable steps in response to a claim. There is no current indication it will be a proactive duty, as above.    

Again, the response is vague on whether the new duty will apply to all forms of harassment, or just to sexual harassment.  

Extending time limit to bring claims 

The government has said it will “closely” look at extending the time limit to bring claims under the EqA from three months to six months. This is said to be in relation to all claims under the EqA, not just sexual harassment.   

The general response to the consultation was in favour of increasing the time limit, with many respondents advocating for 12 months. The government stated that if an extension was to be introduced, a time limit of six months would be more appropriate than 12. This is in recognition of the need to strike a balance of ensuring access to justice while minimising the potential negative impact on employers. Any extension will lead to an increase in employer liability and also start to limit the reliability with which those involved can recall events, and the availability of documents and witnesses.  

It is not clear how this would intersect with other employment claims subject to a three-month time limit. For example, how easily could an employee claiming unfair dismissal amend their claim to tack on claims of discrimination? This would place an additional burden on employers to file an amended defence. 

Any extension in time limit is also likely to see an increase in the number of claims filed. The government is conscious of existing tribunal delays exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to first return the tribunal to previous levels of service before “additional loading” is added. 

Volunteers and interns 

The consultation also considered whether interns were adequately protected under the EqA and whether the EqA’s protections should be extended to volunteers. The government has ruled out changes in this regard on the basis that:  

  • Interns are already sufficiently protected by the EqA as they are likely to be considered “workers”.  
  • Extending protections to volunteers could create a disproportionate level of liability and difficulty for organisations which outweighs the benefit of the volunteering services provided. For instance, individuals helping out at one-off school events or charities.   

Next steps 

The above anticipated changes need a great deal of fleshing out. Crucially, it remains to be seen whether these new protections will be extended to other forms of harassment under the EqA.    

No timelines have been indicated and it is likely to be some time before any changes come into effect. We are still waiting on the legislation promised in 2019 in relation to the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). This is another issue which the #MeToo movement shone a spotlight on.  

In the meantime, employers can start to refocus on the issue of sexual harassment as employees return to the workplace. Harassment can occur in many forms and employers should ensure that training and policies are up to date and consider how harassment can occur in a remote workforce.   

Employers can also review the EHRC’s technical guidance (published in 2020), on which the code is likely to be based. The guidance sets out the EHRC’s recommendations on steps employers should consider taking to prevent harassment. It calls for employers to be more inquisitive about what is going on in the workplace and recommended actions such as conducting risk assessments, carrying out regular feedback surveys and having nominated “guardians” who are trained to support a complainant through the process of making a complaint. When entering into third-party supplier contracts, employers could consider including contractual clauses regarding compliance with anti-harassment policies or requiring third parties to have given training to relevant staff.   

By Marie Hoolihan, associate at King & Spalding 

REUTERS | Kate Munsch

The Office for National Statistics has estimated that more than 1 million people in Britain have suffered or are currently suffering from “post-COVID syndrome”, commonly known as “Long COVID”. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), has defined post-COVID syndrome as “signs and symptoms that develop during or after an infection consistent with COVID-19, continue for more than 12 weeks and are not explained by an alternative diagnosis.” Long COVID represents the next great unknown when it comes to employers’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on workforce management is potentially far-reaching. 

In recent guidance, Acas encourages employers to treat Long COVID like any other illness. However, that advice masks the fact that Long COVID is not like other serious illnesses regularly dealt with by HR professionals. Symptoms of Long COVID vary greatly, ranging from breathlessness or organ damage to depression or memory loss. There is still much debate in the medical literature concerning the causes of Long COVID, as well as, crucially, its prognosis. It will therefore be very difficult for employers to obtain clear medical evidence on which to base their decisions. The TUC has recently called for long COVID to be recognised as a disability and individuals with serious symptoms may well be disabled for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010, though, with virtually no evidence on the likely duration of symptoms (that is, whether the condition is likely to last for at least 12 months and therefore be “long term”), this is currently another unknown. A supportive (and prudent) employer however will err on the side of caution and will need to be thinking about appropriate adjustments for affected employees. Failure to make reasonable adjustments will put employers at risk of disability discrimination claims, and potentially other indirect discrimination claims based on the fact that certain groups sharing a particular characteristic may be at a higher risk of developing Long COVID. 

However, this may be easier said than done for employers. The uncertainty in the medical science makes it very difficult for employers to make informed decisions about the type of adjustments that may be appropriate to support employees suffering with Long COVID, or, with uncertain prognoses, about what adjustments the business can support over the indefinite term. This could potentially be very difficult for HR teams to manage, with costs (in financial and business terms) that may be difficult to estimate with any accuracy. 

There are some simple practical things that employers can begin to think about to prepare to support employees suffering Long COVID symptoms: 

  • Build your HR team’s and your managers’ knowledge. It is important that employees suffering from Long COVID are treated sensitively and supportively, and building understanding will help. The Faculty of Occupational Medicine of the Royal College of Physicians has released guidance on Long COVID for employers and managers. 
  • Maintain an open line of communication, and encourage employees to speak to managers or HR if they are struggling. Symptoms can vary significantly from one affected worker to another, and indeed from one day to the next. Therefore, it is important to have regular one-on-one check-ins with affected employees to understand their symptoms and their needs, and how you can support them to maintain their performance. 
  • Seek medical advice from occupational health. Although there are still many uncertainties in the medical community about Long COVID, particularly in relation to prognosis, an occupational health specialist may still be able to provide you with helpful advice as to what adjustments may help to support an employee with particular symptoms. 
  • Try to be flexible and innovative in the ways in which you provide adjustments. As discussed, Long COVID is an emerging issue and much of it is unknown. However, what is clear is that it will affect a lot of individuals, so, to remain competitive, employers will need to make efforts to retain key talent. 
  • Be wary of “COVID-fatigue” and factor this into your management strategy. In our experience dealing with long-term sickness cases, for example where employees are diagnosed with a condition like cancer, management are very supportive when first becoming aware of a concern, but can become less supportive where illnesses have been continuing for a long time. With what will potentially be a chronic condition, HR professionals should be working from the start to facilitate long-term solutions and ensure that managers and teams are able to adjust and support the individual over an indefinite time period. 
  • If it is not possible to support individuals with Long COVID, exercise caution when it comes to dismissal conversations. The same considerations will apply as in other capability dismissal situations. However, employers will need to be aware of the risk of a challenge on the basis of unreliable medical evidence, given the many unknowns with this condition. 
REUTERS | Glasses lying on papers

In circumstances that will be starkly familiar to those responsible for responding to claims brought by litigants in person, HHJ James Tayler has launched a scathing attack on an Employment Tribunal striking out a claim before the issues had been properly identified (Cox v Adecco UKEAT/0339/19/AT(v)). In doing so, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) has clarified the duties on respondents to assist a litigant in person to properly identify and clarify their claims. This raises a hurdle to be passed before applying to strike out complex claims brought by litigants in person which respondents must address very early on in any case in which this application might be made. 

The claimant’s claim 

The claimant’s claim was that he had been subjected to a detriment and dismissed for making protected disclosures. At an initial case management preliminary hearing, a schedule to the order set out the issues, although without identifying all of the information that the claimant needed to advance if his claim were to succeed.  

Each of the three respondents made applications for the claim to be struck out or for deposit orders, and a further preliminary hearing was listed to dispose of those applications. In advance of that preliminary hearing, the claimant was ordered to provide additional information in respect of the disclosures on which his claim was based.  

By the time the applications came to be considered by Employment Judge (EJ) Martin, she did not have a complete list of issues to work from. Instead, the claimant’s claim was, at that time, contained in a number of documents, including the claim form, additional information, a Scott schedule and draft amended particulars of claim. At the hearing, the onus was squarely placed on the claimant to identify his claim at the hearing, rather than by reference to the documents.  

EJ Martin decided that the claimant’s claims had no reasonable prospects of success and exercised her discretion to strike them out. The claimant, with no doubt considerable assistance from their Advocate, appealed to the EAT.  

The approach of the EAT 

HHJ James Tayler allowed the appeal, giving an authoritative status to the basic proposition that “it is important, wherever possible, to have properly identified the issues in a case before considering strike out”. 

After noting the well-known authorities relating to the circumstances in which it is appropriate to strike out a discrimination or whistleblowing claim, he also drew attention to the dicta in those authorities that encourage the tribunal to take an active role in assisting litigants in person to identify the issues in their claims. He emphasised that, even if the threshold for a claim to be struck out has been passed, an order to strike out a claim is nonetheless discretionary. Part of the exercise of that discretion “may involve consideration of whether an amendment should be permitted should the balance of justice in allowing or refusing the amendment permit if it would result in there being an arguable claim that the claimant should be permitted to advance”.

HHJ James Tayler emphasised the duty on respondents to assist the tribunal in identifying the documents in which the claim is set out, encouraging them to roll up their sleeves and identify, in reasonable detail, the claims and issues as a prerequisite of considering whether the claim has reasonable prospects of success. Respondents should: 

“..assist the tribunal to identify the documents, and key passages of the documents, in which the claim appears to be set out, even if it may not be explicitly pleaded in a manner that would be expected of a lawyer, and take particular care if a litigant in person has applied the wrong legal label to a factual claim that, if properly pleaded, would be arguable.”  

This was backed by an express statement that failures to do so will not be looked on kindly by the EAT should the case reach that stage: “In applying for strike out, it is as well to take care in what you wish for, as you may get it, but then find that an appeal is being resisted with a losing hand.” 

Clearly seeking to avoid suggestion that the duties being imposed are entirely one-sided, HHJ James Tayler noted that litigants in person are also under responsibilities to explain their claims clearly, focus on their core claims, and appreciate that where additional information is requested, it is with the aim of clarifying, and where possible simplifying, the claim. However, respondents and tribunals were reminded that repeatedly asking for additional information and particularisation rarely assists a litigant in person to clarify the claim. 

Once those principles had been set out, the appeal itself was straightforwardly dealt with. Although EJ Martin had been in a difficult situation because the claims and issues had not been properly identified before the preliminary hearing at which she struck out the claimant’s claims, she then made her position more difficult by failing to properly identify the issues with reference to the various documents in which the claimant had attempted to bring his claim. Having taken that approach, she had failed to take into account relevant information set out in those documents. Among other substantive errors of law relating to the requirements for making a protected disclosure, the appeal was therefore allowed and the case remitted to a differently constituted Employment Tribunal. HHJ James Tayler identified those matters which that tribunal would need to consider to have properly identified the claims and issues before considering the respondents’ strike-out applications.  

Comment 

Although the basic proposition on which HHJ James Tayler’s decision is based is unarguable, the decision gives no tangible guidance to Employment Tribunals or respondents as to how to actually identify the issues in complex claims brought by litigants in person. Instead, the guidance appears to be limited to a suggestion that, by looking hard enough at all documents in which the claimant has provided details of their claim, the claims and issues will be sufficiently clear. Those representing respondents in cases against litigants in person will appreciate that as a best-case scenario which is often not borne out in practice.  

However, some guidance can be drawn out from the decision which may assist in ensuring that strike-out applications do not fall on this initial hurdle. A list of issues should be drafted at the first available opportunity, by reference to any documents in which the claimant provides details of their claim (even if an amendment is strictly required to bring these matters with the scope of the claim which has been formally brought). Any requests for further information should be as focused as possible, by reference to that list of issues.  

Ultimately, respondents are likely to be expected to show that they have complied with their duty to assist litigants in person in identifying their claims before any application for strike out is considered. Care should be taken to ensure that the building blocks for this reassurance are created in the initial response to the claim and any preliminary requests for further information. HHJ James Tayler’s judgment is likely to make Employment Tribunals more cautious about prematurely determining strike-out applications, and respondents would be well advised to ensure that they plan an appropriate course to show that the claim is as well clarified as it can be when these applications come to be determined. 

REUTERS | David Gray

Many employers, from factories to care homes to call centres, require workers to perform tasks overnight. Sometimes, however, the tasks arise so intermittently and unpredictably that an employer just needs someone to be on call, ready to perform a task when needed. When tasks are sufficiently infrequent, the employer may arrange for the worker to sleep for all or most of the night and provide suitable facilities for doing so. 

In Royal Mencap Society v Tomlinson-Blake [2021] UKSC 8, the Supreme Court has confirmed that only the time when “sleep-in” workers are awake for the purpose of working will count for national minimum wage (‘NMW’) calculations. The line of case law which suggested otherwise, including British Nursing Association v Inland Revenue [2002] EWCA Civ 494, Scottbridge Construction Ltd v Wright2003 SC 520 and Burrow Down Support Services Ltd v Rossiter[2008] ICR 1172, is no longer to be regarded as authoritative. 

National Minimum Wage Regulations 2015 

As might be expected, hours which are spent actually working are always included in the NMW calculation.  

Additionally, under regulation 32 of the National Minimum Wage Regulations 2015 (SI 2015/621) (NMW Regulations 2015) (and its predecessor, regulation 15 of the NMW Regulations 1999) the calculation for time work also includes time when a worker is available, and required to be available, at or near a place of work for the purposes of working. However, this is subject to two exceptions: 

  • Time spent at home is not included, even if the worker is required to be there and to remain available for work. 
  • If the employer permits the worker to sleep during a shift, and provides suitable facilities for sleeping, then only the hours when the worker is awake for the purposes of working will count.  

Regulations 15/32 only apply when someone is not actually working. It is sometimes described as a “deeming” provision, in that it treats time when someone is merely required to be available for work as if it were time spent working. It follows that the exceptions for home working and sleeping time simply do not arise when someone is actually working. 

Mencap v Tomlinson-Blake 

Mrs Tomlinson-Blake was an experienced care worker who supported two men with substantial learning disabilities living in a privately owned property. Some of her shifts were sleep-in shifts from 10.00 pm to 7.00 am and she was provided with her own bedroom in the house. During her sleep-in shifts, she was required to remain at the house and intervene if she judged that her support was necessary, which the ET found had happened on six occasions in a 16-month period. She was positively expected to get a good night’s sleep.  

Traditionally, sleep-in care workers like Mrs Tomlinson-Blake have been paid an allowance for the whole shift, at below NMW rates, plus NMW rates for any time when they are actually called on to work. 

However, in a series of decisions from Burrow Down Support Services to Mencap v Tomlinson-Blake (reported as Focus Care Agency v Roberts [2017] ICR 1186), the EAT decided that some sleep-in workers were actually working throughout their shifts, not merely deemed to be working. These workers were not therefore covered by the exception for sleeping time under regulations 15/32 and were entitled to NMW rates even when sleeping.  

In finding that Mrs Tomlinson-Blake was working throughout her shift, the ET had taken into account: 

  • Mencap’s regulatory obligation to have someone on the premises. 
  • Mencap’s obligation under its contract with the council to have a carer present at a service user’s home. 
  • The fact that Mrs Tomlinson-Blake was constantly on call; even when asleep she had to be present and listening out, ready to judge whether intervention was required.  

In the EAT, Simler P identified in the authorities a “clear dichotomy” between “those cases where an employee is working merely by being present at the employer’s premises … whether or not provided with sleeping accommodation and those where the employee is provided with sleeping accommodation and is simply on-call” (Focus Care Agency, at paragraph 31). She decided that classifying a particular case as being on one side or the other required a multifactorial evaluation, with no single factor being determinative, and no exhaustive list of factors provided. 

The EAT upheld the finding of the ET based on this multifactorial evaluation. 

Supreme Court in Mencap v Tomlinson-Blake 

The Court of Appeal disagreed with the EAT, and the Supreme Court has now dismissed Mrs Tomlinson-Blake’s appeal.  

Lady Arden relied on the First Report of the Low Pay Commission (Cm 3976) (June 1998) to identify the objectives of the NMW Regulations 2015. The Low Pay Commission’s (LPC) starting point was that working time included all time which a worker had to spend at the employer’s place of work ready to be called on to work, even if no work was available. However, working time did not include time spent on call or on standby elsewhere.  

For the special case of workers who were sleeping at the employer’s premises while on call, the LPC recommended that a shift allowance should be agreed between workers and employers, but they would be entitled to NMW “for all times when they are awake and required to be available for work”. The LPC “plainly did not consider that a sleep-in worker who was sleeping could be said to be working …” (Mencap, at paragraph 46). Lady Arden held that the drafter of regulations 15/32 took the same view, since the exception for sleep-in provision appears in the context of availability for work rather than in the context of defining when a worker is working.  

Finally, Lady Arden noted that, to count as available for work under regulations 15/32, a person must be both awake and awake for the purposes of working; that is, hours when they are awake for their own purposes are not counted. 

On that basis, she agreed with the Court of Appeal that Mrs Tomlinson-Blake was entitled to the NMW only when she was awake for the purposes of working and not for the whole period of her shift. 

Implications for organisations and workers in the care sector 

This decision is particularly welcome to organisations in the care sector, which rely on sleep-in workers who are often on low pay. It is, of course, equally unwelcome to the care workers themselves, even more so after a year during which they have faced some of the most difficult circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

However, it should be remembered there is still a line to be drawn between working under regulations 3/20, and being available for work under regulations 15/32. Lady Arden agreed with Underhill LJ that a worker whose tasks are intermittent may have facilities provided for sleeping, and be permitted to take a nap between tasks, and still be working throughout their shift for NMW purposes. As she noted, the sleep-in exception under regulations 15/32 only covers arrangements:  

“where the principal purpose and objective of the arrangement is that the employee will sleep at or near the place of work, and responding to any disturbance during the time allocated for sleep must be subsidiary to that purpose or objective.” (Mencap, at paragraph 57). 

Whether that is true for any particular worker will depend on the individual facts.  

REUTERS | A man rides on an escalator in central Seoul, South Korea, June 15, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji - RTX2GAPH

Most people would agree that bringing tribunal proceedings is a daunting step and not one to be taken lightly. But what about the serial or vexatious litigant? In one recent case, it came to light than a candidate had brought “at least 38 claims that are known about” alleging disability discrimination.   

Most of the claims appeared to be against recruitment consultants, the vast majority of which were dismissed following withdrawal of the claim by the claimant. In at least two of these cases, costs awards were made against the claimant for abusing the tribunal process. In one such case the judge noted:

“[The Claimant] was routinely making claims which were either dismissed or which he withdrew. It is not known if he settled any, but none went to a hearing. It does very much look as if he brought claims to see if he could get a payment in settlement, and then abandoned them. That is not a proper use of the tribunal process, and it is not a reason why potential employers should have to incur legal costs defending claims that a claimant does not intend to pursue.” 

Handling vexatious litigants 

Employers faced with that sort of applicant (effectively branded a vexatious litigant whose job application had no prospects of success due to lack of experience) would be on safe ground to refuse that candidate a job. But what if employers face a litigious candidate who had some relevant experience and had asked for reasonable adjustments as a disabled employee? That candidate might say that they had brought each of those cases with the intention of pursuing them to a hearing to demonstrate institutional discrimination in their extensive job search. Can an employer safely refuse to hire a serial litigant in these circumstances? 

The answer is no: bringing proceedings (or giving evidence) is a protected act under the  Equality Act 2010, provided the act relates to a protected characteristic and has been done in good faith. Employers who simply rule out employees because of prior discrimination claims may be opening themselves up to a victimisation claim.   

The fact that the candidate’s motivation may have included extracting a financial settlement from other prospective employers in bringing the claim is of little relevance.  The key question is was the claim brought honestly? If so, to deprive a candidate of a fair interview or a job will likely amount to victimisation. Ultimately, it is not relevant if the candidate has it wrong and 38 prior job applications were unsuccessful because they have a terrible employment track record rather than because they have a disability. If employer number 39 refuses to give them a job because they have alleged disability discrimination countless times, that is very likely to be an actionable and successful victimisation claim against employer number 39. 

Burden of proof  

The key issue here is why was the candidate refused the job by employer 39 and can number 39 prove it? If it was because the candidate has zero relevant experience, things are looking less risky for the prospective employer; the question is can the prospective employer demonstrate that reason? The burden of proof quickly shifts to the prospective employer in these circumstances and contemporaneous notes will be absolutely vital. 

Ultimately, what this goes to show is that before employers unleash their managers on the recruitment process, they should make sure they have had appropriate training and, in particular, have had diversity and inclusion (D&I) training. Understanding how to avoid victimising job candidates who have previously been involved in cases or supported former colleagues in claims around protected characteristics is vital. As is knowing how to run a fair recruitment process, make reasonable adjustments where necessary, and document the fair and justifiable reason for not taking a candidate further forward in the process.   

Potential employers need to be able to robustly defend themselves from serial or vexatious litigants who have zero intention of using the tribunal process properly. But, in doing so, do not expose your organisation to candidates like this job applicant who clearly took the opportunity to exploit the system.  

REUTERS |

For those employers which have been fortunate enough to avoid the need for compulsory redundancies, 2020 was a year that, in many industries, saw very little natural attrition in headcount. Employees were choosing to stay put, given the economic downturn. This can be an issue, as many employers assume a regular churn” of employees for budgeting purposes and particularly so in an up or out” environment. This comes alongside the challenges of managing performance during the pandemic and consequential remote working. 

The redundancy route  

As a means of managing headcount, redundancy is a very different proposition to performance management. Redundancy takes out roles, not poor performers.  

Redundancy can also (potentially) be expensive, with additional payments due to employees. Most importantly, a redundant position cannot be re-filled by someone who can do the job more effectively; the position has been eliminated and filling it immediately exposes an employer to an unfair dismissal claim on grounds that the redundancy was not genuine. 

Employers looking to manage attrition and to upgrade existing talent need to turn to proactive performance management. In preparing for the economic upturn, employers need to focus on this now to be in the best (and leanest) shape: fair and effective performance management doesn’t happen overnight and means considerable management-hours investment. However, retaining and growing the best mix of talent will no doubt be a defining feature of those companies which pull out of the pandemic most successfully. 

Restrain, retain or retrain  

The rules of performance management have now changed: observing and measuring performance is inevitably more difficult in an environment in which frequency of contact and physical supervision is limited. Employees’ domestic responsibilities (such as home schooling or caring for shielding or sick household members) are part of daily working life and, often most difficult, performance management is being conducted remotely, often intrusively in an employee’s own home. 

Set out below are my top five tips for dealing with the challenges of managing poor performance. 

Do not delay 

Poor performers are unlikely to get any better working remotely with an absence of management. If there is potential for turning performance around (or even if there isn’t) a hands-on and proactive performance plan needs implementing, immediately. Waiting for us all to get back to the office environment is not the answer. Engaging with the employees now is vital, as is providing direction and feedback (and keeping a record of it). Fair performance management takes months. Assuming we are all vaccinated and have some hope of an economic uptick by the autumn, employers want to be at fighting weight” by the end of summer. An average performance improvement plan (PIP) takes anywhere between three and six months. Start now. 

Be systematic 

Managing headcount and talent upgrades are intensive processes; every week is an opportunity for a check in, highlighting deficiencies and setting development goals. If there are genuine reasons for the drop-off in performance, engaging with the employee will reveal those and you can then move to supporting the employee as required. In performance management terms, every week is everything. 

Be firm but be kind 

Many people are struggling; from the loss of loved ones and serious mental health issues to a lack of WiFi or lack of a decent office chair. Make sure that you make room for an employee’s life” in your PIP. Your staff are your key asset; supporting an employee in a time of crisis is loyalty that a salary rise or a bonus often cannot compete with. The most difficult conversations can be done professionally, swiftly and compassionately. If you don’t know how to do them, script them and work with your HR professionals to prepare. Plan conversations carefully and bear in mind that drawing out these situations rarely helps either party. If an employee says they are stressed by the process, moving through it without delay can often be the most compassionate way of resolving a situation. 

Flexibility is a friend 

Being accompanied at a virtual meeting can be tricky. Be prepared to be flexible and, if an employee wants to be accompanied by a member of their household or social bubble, it may be better to err on the side of agreement. Be clear about the limits of the accompanying person’s role and don’t be afraid, as host” of the virtual meeting, to make use of the mute button. Difficult messages are being given and received directly into an employee’s own home. There is no opportunity to wind down” with colleagues, so flexibility of process to allow support can be important. 

Be clear in your messages 

An employee needs to be told there must be improvement if there is any hope of a successful PIP. I have seen too many meetings where messages are half given (and half received) because it is too difficult for the manager and employees are told to speak to HR”. It is uncomfortable telling an employee that the level at which they are performing is simply not good enough, but it is only fair. Do not fudge a disciplinary process and rely on redundancy as a no fault” dismissal. It may be simpler in the short term to tell an employee that their position has been eliminated, but the consequences are far more damaging. Any redundancy unnerves other staff, particularly at the moment, and it can have a very direct impact on retention of those you want to keep. There is also nothing more frustrating for those who are performing to see under-performers go unmanaged. 

Now is the time to focus on the performance of your workforce to be in the best shape possible for the second half of the year. Proactively assessing performance across your organisation gives you an opportunity to engage with your staff and shape your talent.