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Employment Rights – What about the Employer?

Do you have an awkward member of staff? Are you unsure how to deal with them? Dan Jenkins, managing director, HJS Human Resources highlights three key employment rights for employers

Much is published about employee’s rights in the workplace, and rightly so. No-one would argue against the need to safeguard against exploitative employers and the need to ensure employees have safe and fair workplaces. But for employers, the vast majority of which in the UK are small businesses with less than 50 employees (99.3% of businesses according to the Department for Business Innovation and Skills), information about their rights in the employment relationship is not always so easy to find.

Of the 1.3 million businesses in the UK that employ someone other than the owner, just under 1.1 million of these employ under 10 people. So, business owners with under 10 employees in addition to themselves account for some 82% of all employers in the UK.

It’s clear then that we’re not talking about large national or multinational corporates with vast resources. Most private sector employers in the UK are very small, micro businesses. Often these businesses have been started by individuals who have worked hard to grow to the point where they are able to employ others, and whose skills are related to the work the business does and not necessarily the complexities of employment law.

So for the benefit of such business owners, I have set out below three key employment rights for employers:-

The Right to a Fair Day’s Work

The Work-for-Pay principle is at the heart of the employment relationship. You pay your employee and they work. As obvious as it sounds we may all have come across the occasional employee who does not seem to understand this concept. You are entitled to expect your employees to attend work at the agreed times, save for any exceptional circumstances that you have provided for in your agreement, incapacity through ill health being one example. However, it is also reasonable that should an employee be unfortunate enough to be incapacitated for too long then you are entitled to consider that employee incapable of fulfilling their work obligations and consider ending the employment relationship in those circumstances.

The Right for Employees to Dedicate Their Time at Work to Your Interests

Not only are you entitled to expect your employees to attend work, but also to work while they are there. You may recall the story of the visitor, while being shown around a large workplace, asking the question “how many people work here?” to which the managing director replied “about half”. There is an implied duty of fidelity automatically built into every employment contract whereby the employee must have regard to the employer’s interests in how they behave.

It is reasonable to expect the employee to dedicate their working time to working diligently and productively and not waste time. You must of course comply with legal requirements relating to minimum rest periods (minimum 20 minutes break for employees over 18 years of age who work more than 6 hours in a shift) and provide facilities for natural needs – drinks, toilets, etc. It is 30 minutes minimum break for young workers aged 16-18 who work more than 4.5 hours. During working hours however, you are entitled to expect the employee not to be fiddling with their mobile phones, shopping on the internet, checking their Facebook page, texting friends or family, watching films, gossiping with colleagues . . . . . .

The Right to Expect Certain Standards of Conduct and Performance

It is reasonable to set out minimum, reasonable, standards of performance and conduct at work. These can include the way in which employees will carry out tasks, the manner in which the employee will provide their services and the standards of performance to which they will work. Provided these are reasonable and communicated clearly at the outset then it is fair and reasonable for you to address any shortcomings with your employees and, should they not be capable of or willing to improve sufficiently, ultimately end the employment. Clearly it is reasonable for employers to make reasonable efforts to first assist the employee to be able to attain required standards and give them a fair opportunity to do so before deciding to terminate employment.

The Right to Take Action to Enforce the Rules

We have clients who have experienced problems when trying to enforce these rights in the workplace, sometimes faced with employees who find it hard to accept their employer’s rights in terms of the above, and in some cases actually thinking that these rights somehow infringe on their own personal rights and liberties (“it’s my phone and you have no right to tell me not to use it”). For such situations my advice goes as follows:

1. Make sure that your written contractual terms and handbook policies cover everything that you want to control and set standards for in the workplace.

2. Communicate these clearly to your employees at the outset of the employment relationship, and reiterate later if necessary.

3. When an employee does not comply with your reasonable policy on, for example, mobile phones at work, adopt the following (cases concerning minor misconduct):

– Remind them of the policy/procedure and ask them to refrain from the behaviour that contravenes your rules. Hopefully that will be an end to it; make a note of the date, time and content of the discussion and keep it on file.

– If the problem recurs, meet again and instruct the employee that if they persist you will need to take formal disciplinary action. Hopefully that will be an end to the matter again.

– If it happens again commence disciplinary procedures under your policy and ask the employee to attend a formal disciplinary meeting, potentially resulting in a first level formal warning. If the problem continues then the next steps in the disciplinary procedure would potentially be a final written warning and then dismissal. Provided you apply your rules and procedures consistently and fairly (one rule for all) then this is a fair way to maintain discipline and standards at work.

Granted it’s not always easy in a small workplace to enforce rules in this way. No one likes an atmosphere, but for the small employer it is often just one particular employee who can cause problems, and often you find that by dealing with problems early on it sets accepted standards that everyone respects leading to a happier workplace.

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