Managing employee relations during the COVID-19 outbreak

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Managing employee relations during the COVID-19 outbreak

A lot of fires were dampened last week. A lot of questions were answered, a lot of clarity was provided. On the employment front, we were delighted to get further guidance on how the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme will work, and a number of our clients have now started putting staff on furlough leave.

However, as we enter this ‘implementation phase’, we are forecasting a whole host of new, unprecedented employee relations issues on the horizon. The main point of contention is likely to be who gets furloughed and who keeps working. Whilst those who keep working will continue (in most cases) to receive their full salary, those who are furloughed will receive 80% of their normal pay, or £2500 per month (noting that this amounts to a salary of £30,000 per year) to sit at home. Businesses will face challenges from employees on both sides of the fence if a consistent approach is not taken. We strongly encourage employers to be transparent with their employees about the approach that they are taking, and ideally, invite employees to comment on proposals before implementing them. 

Another huge point of contention for a number of businesses is whether they should stay open or not. We are receiving reports of boards being split down the middle, with half wanting to send staff home in the interests of protecting their health, the other half wanting to keep business as usual for as long as possible in the interests of protecting their jobs. It’s a moral dilemma for employers, and as above, we are encouraging employers to be transparent with employees to minimise employee relations issues. Employees who feel that their employer is ‘sticking their head in the sand’ are likely to feel undervalued and frankly, at risk. If you do intend to keep your business open, you should explain to your employees exactly what measures you are taking to keep them safe. Employees should be invited to share any specific concerns that they have so that the business can address these where possible. Allowing the employee to be part of the solution will not only help them to feel valued and empowered, but will also help them to feel safe.

Finally, it’s vitally important that employers don’t lose touch with employees who have been furloughed. Employees should be kept up to date on how the company is doing and what the ‘next step’ is likely to be to ensure they remain engaged. Employees who are not kept engaged will be difficult to motivate during the so-called ‘restart phase’, which every business will want to get through as quickly as possible. Ultimately, depending on how long the period of furlough leave lasts, the employee may become so disengaged with their job that they decide they never want to come back.

Whilst we are most certainly in unchartered waters, there are some basic HR principles that businesses can adhere to in order to minimise employee relations issues during this time:

  1. Listen. Above all else, businesses need to listen carefully to the concerns, hopes and grumbles of their employees, otherwise they will risk implementing solutions to problems that don’t exist.
  2. Communicate. We are all being bombarded with so much information at the moment, it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees. Instead of adding to this information overload by circulating a memo or other written communication, take the time to have a discussion with your employees – over the phone or video link if necessary – in order to better facilitate communication both ways.
  3. Be flexible. Not every situation is the same and so a solution that works for 99% of people may nonetheless not work for everyone. Businesses can get so focussed on trying to make sure that they treat everyone fairly that in the end, no one is happy. Often, when an employer exercises discretion to deal with exceptional circumstances, employees will not only understand this but appreciate the fact that their employer is trying to do the right thing. 

If you are experiencing employee relations issues in light of to COVID-19 outbreak, please contact our employment team who would be happy to talk these through with you.

Claire Knowles – Partner

Mark Alaszewski – Associate

Rebecca Mahon – Solicitor

Adam McGlynn – Trainee Solicitor

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