Monthly Archives: March 2012

What’s the Cause of the Skills Shortage in the UK?

Many companies I come across say how they are suffering from a skills shortage as often they can’t recruit the right calibre of employee.  These companies are in all industry sectors particularly manufacturing and engineering, industries for which this country was once great.
The skills shortage is impacting on the UK’s ability to grow and compete in a global economy and needs to change for the future of our country.  The demand for certain skills moves with the times and is dependent on constant change whether caused through technological change, economic shifts, global movements or ageing populations.  The UK must move with the times and anticipate change.  
So what could be the cause of the current skills shortage?
One view is that schools are not linked to the needs of businesses and educating students accordingly.  Over the years we have seen the erosion of vocational-based courses in favour of developing university-focused students so much so that we now have graduates who are unable to get a job because there is nothing to discern the differences between them apart other than the subject of their non-work focused degrees.  However, in schools one size does not fit all and many students have a vocational leaning, which is just not being met. 
On leaving school young people find there is no room for them in the world of work due to their lack of work-based skills.  It is often a struggle to create a worthwhile CV and those that do best have developed demonstrable skills through hobbies, Saturday jobs and volunteering.
Employers seem loathe to take on apprentices often being put off by strangling health and safety laws. 
On the other end of the age spectrum older workers also struggle due to employer prejudice and stereotyping  such as “ you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”.  Interviewing panels can often be young twenty or thirty somethings who think anyone over 40 is past it.  Let them just wait till they reach 40 – will they still the same – I very much doubt it.
This discrimination in relation to age means that employees within the “golden” age range of 25-40 are much sought after.  They are recruited for their skills. 
However, once employed companies often withhold training and development opportunities.  They see training and development as a cost to the business, which when times are hard, they can ill afford.  Little do they realise that training and development will put them ahead of the game when the economy gets going again and anyway will keep them ticking over in the meantime adding to competitiveness.  Employees who do not feel valued and are not invested in will often leave creating an even bigger skills shortage for their ex-employer. 
For things to change the government, educational establishments and industry must all work together in partnership to improve the skills shortage in the UK. 

7 Top Tips for Managing an Employment Tribunal Claim

1. Complete and return the ET3 (employer response) within 28 days of receiving the ET1 (employee claim) otherwise there may be a default judgement against you.  If you are struggling to comply with the deadline ask for a 28 day extension in writing as soon as possible. 
2. Comply with all the written instructions/orders within time provided by the Employment Tribunal office.
3. Wherever possible, work with the ACAS conciliator to try and settle the case; it will save you lots of stress, time and money. 
4. Gather together all the documents that can help you demonstrate the actions you have taken against the employee.  Ask the employee or their representative in writing for any documents they may have.  Work together to prepare the trial bundle. 
5. Organise any witnesses and prepare witness statements.
6. Ensure on the day of the hearing you turn up at least half an hour before the start to ensure all the tribunal admin is completed and to discuss any last minute items with your representative.
7. During the hearing always be respectful of the tribunal panel and the other side, give true accounts of the situation and answer questions honestly. 

The Jargon Filled World of HR. Does It Add To HR’s Professional Credibility?

I have worked in HR since the mid 1990s and over the years have watched whilst the HR environment has become engulfed with jargon.  Developments began in the 1990s where the term HR overtook the term personnel and came from the States.  From the mid 1990s it seems the flood gates for HR jargon were opened. 
The pure and simple role of HR Manager that used to mean approaching one individual for support with people management has, in general, become, in many large organisations, HR Business Partner, a role that sits within a framework alongside various generalists and specialists who are approached for support where the need lies.  If you have a problem with a disciplinary situation you talk to the Employee Relations Manager, if you want to discuss pay and benefits you need to discuss this with the Employee Reward Manager rather than your HR advisor.  Where has the simplicity gone? 

Diversity has become the term for what once was equal opportunities.  Equal opportunities looked at various pigeon-holed individuals eg disabled or coloured to ensure they had equality in all areas of employment.  Diversity, however, is about valuing differences and uniqueness and being tolerant.  It does not focus on individuals but values everyone for who they are.  Nevertheless discrimination in all its now extended forms is still rife in the UK demonstrated by employment tribunal statistics so what does that say about this development? 

Employee engagement has become a hot topic.  This is all about catching the imagination of employees so they love working for a company, work harder and ultimately increase profits.  This tends to be linked with employee recognition which is deemed to be a communication tool that reinforces and rewards the most important outcomes people create for your business. Employees, therefore, rather than just receiving informal praise for a job well done are now encouraged to perform  for formal customised employee reward perks.  The aim is that these processes make people feel valued, reduce turnover, increase employee empowerment  and improve company culture.  Surely an employee is paid to do a good job so surely that is just reward anyway? 

Knowledge management is a range of strategies and practices used in a company to identify, create, represent, distribute and enable adoption of ideas and experiences.  Informal teaching/sharing processes that have always gone.  They have now been replaced by a formalised process where knowledge is captured via the management of competencies,  best practice transfers and cross project learning, all of which are formally spread throughout an organisation to the benefit of all.  Simple eh?  

Talent management  refers to the skills of attracting highly skilled workers, of integrating new workers, and developing and retaining current workers to meet current and future business objectives.   What happened to good old fashioned recruitment and employee retention?

Even the term recruitment has become resourcing.  

Just lately I have seen the terms onboarding and orienteering being banded around, terms from the States.  Orienteering in the UK used to just mean “anoutdoor adventure sport which involves walking or running whilst navigating around a course using a detailed map and sometimes a compass”.  Onboarding to me has nautical connotations and has nothing to do with employment.  Why have these somewhat ridiculous terms started to replace the good old fashioned term of induction which is the process of formally guiding and introducing a new employee to people and processes in an organisation?  

Instead of redundancy the terms downsizing or rightsizing are increasingly used.

Mergers and acquistions are known as TUPE transfers relating to the law The Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 (a legal mouthful in itself), which governs the transfer of employees from one company to another. 
The list could go on.

HR has a hard enough job being understood anyway in the business world so why make things even more difficult?  Instead of making HR seem to be “with it” in business aiming to exert an influence on proceedings, HR seems ever more out of touch.  How can HR be taken seriously if they cannot communicate in every day language?

I am a fan of good old fashioned plain English.  When I provide advice on HR and employment matters I use clear practical language so my clients understand what they need to do.  No-one has ever said to me “can you explain that more clearly or “I don’t know what you are talking about”. 

So, in conclusion, although I am sure the jargon attached to HR processes will continue to develop, I personally do not believe it does anything to add to HR’s professional credibility and if you want clear, practical jargon-free HR advice just give me a call. 

Undertaking a Disciplinary Investigation

It was reported recently that a union member was sacked by Salford Council for assault.  He went to an employment tribunal and won his case for unfair dismissal.  The tribunal found that the council had failed to establish that an assault had taken place.  In fact the employee had merely brushed past the manager with whom he was having a heated disagreement in a narrow corridor.
Such a case highlights the importance of rigorous investigation before taking disciplinary action particularly dismissal.  All witness should be thoroughly interviewed at least once if not several times if discrepancies come to light during the investigation process.  They should be interviewed individually using a question and answer format.  Alternatively they should be asked to provide their own statement which should be done whilst supervised.  All relevant paperwork/evidence should also be collated.  The process can be conducted by managers or, as it can take up time, by an experienced HR consultant.  Sufficient time should be taken to ensure the investigation is completed well and a comprehensive report written up.  The investigation forms the basis of whether to go forward to a disciplinary hearing or not.
It should aim to leave no stone unturned and, if done correctly, can prevent a costly miscarriage of justice.

The Importance of Truth in an Employment Tribunal

In a recent employment tribunal case of a claimant who lodged a claim for unfair dismissal and sexual harassment, it was decided that she was lying in revenge for being sacked.
Throughout an employment tribunal process it is important to be honest and truthful in all dealings which begins with being up front to your representative right at the very start whether you are respondent or claimant.  Your representative needs to know all the main details so they can represent you appropriately.  If you or your witnesses tell untruths about any aspect of your case do not fear you will be found out at some stage.  If your representative finds out later in the process that you have not been completely honest they might drop your case.  If this is done at the last minute you might end up no representation.  
If you maintain any falsehoods you will be exposed by the other side’s representative and/or the highly experienced employment tribunal panel closely scrutinising the paperwork and your testimony.  When you lie it is difficult to maintain a consistent story and this will cast doubt.
Lack of honesty will lose you the case even if it initially had high prospects of success.   

Why is CPD Important?

Continuing professional development (CPD) supports systematic development of an individual.  The aim is that the continuing search to improve knowledge and skills through exposure to new experiences benefits both the individual and the business.  Most professional bodies actively encourage CPD. 
The world is not static and there are new developments in all areas emerging all the time, which are both challenging and exciting.  Change gives individuals a chance to stretch their ability and staying up to date builds confidence and adds to credibility.  CPD can be a good tool for career progression.  An individual needs to identify potential opportunities where their career can grow eg up the career ladder and/or to improve salary.   For businesses, the benefits are the ability to stay ahead of competitors and the increase in profits.  Therefore, through exposure to new initiatives both parties benefit.    
CPD is a cycle of continuous improvement, identifying new experiences to pursue.  Having gained that new experience comes the analysis of what has been learnt and how it can be put into practice at work, before considering the next new development.  CPD is self-directed and requires motivation and commitment to improving one’s own personal standards, which for some individuals can be a challenge in itself.  Keeping up the momentum is also important and setting personal goals of what needs to be achieved within a particular timescale.  For those who manage to maintain the cycle there is a huge sense of achievement.  Paper records can be kept that document the learning experience, what has been learnt and how it will be used.

The process can take many forms – attending seminars, academic courses and conferences, undertaking work-based activities, secondments and project management or reading books and journals.  Individuals may have a particular learning style, but to develop their skills should occasionally adopt one that is does not come naturally.  For example an individual who learns best from active involvement with problem-solving could adopt a more theoretical style and read an article on a chosen subject instead. 

CPD can include coaching and mentoring other individuals.  Personal satisfaction can be gained from having helped someone develop new skills perhaps watching them blossom from the new confidence they have gained. A role model will lead by example demonstrating to those who are interested how it is done and the benefits to be gained.  As a mentor an individual can provide others with the benefit of their knowledge passing on valuable information of skills and abilities or as a coach positively encouraging an individual to know which paths to pursue.  Any or all of these routes can be followed providing satisfaction for all.

Is Sickness Absence Damaging Your Business?

Sickness absence costs the UK billions every year and has a huge impact on profits.  Two  sickness absence situations that have been in the press recently show the implications for handling sickness absence badly.    Sickness absence cost Birmingham City Council £35m last year with sickness rates running at almost double the national average.  The main reasons were anxiety, stress and depression. 
In another case a nurse working for North Wales police lead a department where 200 sickness days had been lost in three years.  She herself had had 69 days off in three years, 24 in one year.  When the nurse was challenged about her high sickness rates she claimed she had throat cancer.  This was not investigated thoroughly until managers got suspicious that her high sickness continued after she had supposedly had an operation.    
Both these cases were in the public sector where, in general, across the UK absence levels are one third higher than that in the private sector.  By tackling the problems tax payers’ money could be saved.   Given that public sector organisations have a well staffed HR department and access to an occupational health service, perhaps the lack of management initiative in dealing with these situations is at fault. 
The aim of any sickness procedure would be to get the employee back to working normally and if that cannot happen then consideration to termination of employment.  The sickness procedure needs to be fair.      
Sickness absence, whether intermittent or long term, can be dealt with quite easily and fairly following a few simple guidelines along with documented meetings.  The main point is to deal with it quickly.  Management commitment is essential.  Turning a blind eye will not help; there will be an impact on morale as other employees watch a colleague not being dealt with and, in my experience, a sickness absence situation will only get worse.
Small companies certainly cannot afford to allow a sickness absence case to linger at huge cost to the business. 
Getting good advice on handling a sickness absence case is essential in case there might be underlying disability issues which need to be dealt with correctly to avoid disability discrimination.

Is the Introduction of "Fire at Will" Dismissals a Good Idea?

Osborne has just proposed the introduction of “fire at will” dismissal law that will enable small employers to dismiss staff more easily.  The employment minister Norman Lamb is unveiling plans during March which would remove restrictions on laying off staff at businesses with fewer than ten employees.  It is proposed that poorly performing employees are laid off whilst the employer can recruit staff who will perform more effectively. It is claimed that current rules allow employees to “coast along” without management action.  The proposal is designed to support the “cutting the red tape challenge” and increase employment.  However, the latter is debateable whether employment legislation is contributing to increasing unemployment.
There are plenty of employers in the UK that do not currently adhere to employment law and in treating their staff poorly run the risk of incurring an employment tribunal claim during which successful employees have the right to be compensated for lost employment rights.
Should the government introduce their proposal of compensated no fault dismissals, employment rights will be diminished.  The government’s proposal is underpinned by an anticipation that the value of small businesses to the economy will increase.  However the danger of changing the law to allow easier dismissals for small companies could instead backfire and scupper the government’s plans of their contribution to economic growth.
There could be many underlying reasons of poor conduct that require deeper investigation and promotes fair treatment.   If the law is changed and small businesses are allowed to operate in a “fire at will” manner, the effects on employee morale within a company could be very damaging.  Company reputation will also suffer and have a negative impact on the bottom line.  If the dismissal has a discriminatory angle employees have the right to go to an employment tribunal regardless of length of service adding to costs.
Poor performance, regardless of company size, is easy to manage through a fair process of monitoring and support.  Practical advice can easily be sought from an HR practitioner. 
The government needs to carefully think about the introduction of such a proposal. Coupled with their firm intention to introduce fees for claimants to lodge an employment tribunal claim, access to employment rights for many down trodden workers will be, all but, practically removed.  This will mean going back to before the beginning of the 20th century when protection for worker rights began and will not be good for the future.   

How To Use an HR Consultant

Bringing an HR consultant into your organisation should be done to achieve a specific objective.  It may be a project that needs delivering eg a recruitment campaign, completion of a TUPE or redundancy project or to cover a maternity leave post.  Whatever the company requirement, whether linked to strategic or operational HR objective there is an HR consultant to fit the bill, whether they be a generalist or specialist.

The advantages to bringing in an external professional can be buying in specific expertise just when needed.  Many HR consultants have many years solid practical experience before launching into the world of consultancy.  They bring with them a fresh eye on the workings of your company and can often offer new problem-solving solutions to issues such as staff retention or absence and provide tailored solutions.    They are used to “hitting the ground running”, and can build key relationships quickly, establishing credibility and just getting on with the job in hand whether this be as a change agent or role caretaker or both.

Being an “outsider” an HR consultant tends not to get involved with office politics.  Their decisions can, therefore, be based on benefits to the organisation, not whether it will upset the opinions of certain individuals.  This is particularly important in any change management and organisational design project. 

Using an HR consultant can save an organisation time and money.  Time is saved by, for example, outsourcing a project that existing HR professionals in an organisation can’t spare from the usual day to day tasks; this can include delivering coaching or conducting 360 degree appraisal.  A consultant can also be brought in on an ad hoc basis when no HR expertise exists at all within the organisation eg to conduct a disciplinary investigation or provide support on a poor performance issue.  

Other cost savings can include not having a permanent member of staff on the payroll and if the work can be completed from home then office resources are saved. 

A disadvantage of using an HR consultant can, on the other hand, be the potential expense.  Depending on the level of expertise required, consultant fees can vary from £200 to £1,000 per day so companies need to consider what they can afford and negotiate the daily rate.  To avoid escalating costs consideration should be given to defining a project cost eg as with management training.     

To avoid any confusion a clear agreement and contract needs to be drawn up at the start between the company and consultant establishing clear goals with regular meetings built in to check progress.  Clear responsibilities should be allocated to avoid any confusion.  Fees and expenses need to be included as well as confidentiality issues and problem resolution.     
Before recruiting an HR consultant, a company needs to have a clear idea of what they are trying to achieve and draw up a project plan and brief for discussion.  There should also be a job description and person specification.  With the latter this provides the basis to recruit the right calibre of person.  As the need for an HR consultant can often be at short notice, companies need to consider the best place to advertise or find the right candidate and consider a more streamlined recruitment process. 
Once recruited the consultant should be provided with a robust structured induction to enable them to hit the ground running. 

What is Constructive Dismissal?

I receive a lot of enquiries from disgruntled employees looking to take their employers to an employment tribunal for constructive dismissal.  Constructive dismissal is very hard to prove. Employees must show that there was a fundamental breach of contract by the employer that leads to a breakdown in trust and confidence.  They must then show that the decision to terminate their employment was in response to the breach.  The grievance procedure should always be pursued first before terminating their contract.
When hearing a case of constructive dismissal an employment tribunal will consider the Western Excavating Test derived from Western Excavating Ltd v Sharp 1978 caselaw:

“If the employer is guilty of conduct which is a significant breach going to the root of the contract of employment, or which shows that the employer no longer intends to be bound by one or more of the essential terms of the contract, then the employee is entitled to treat himself as discharged from any further performance. If he does so, then he terminates the contract by reason of the employer’s conduct.”

The employment tribunal panel will have to decide whether a dismissal has taken place then will consider the fairness of that dismissal.    

A case that I successfully represented recently involved an employee complaining to her employer about the struggles she was having with her job that had been going on for months.  The employer wrote back to her advising her to get on and do her job otherwise they would be dismissed or alternatively they could choose to resign.  At the time the employer was unable to offer any work to the employee.  The employment tribunal panel decided that the employee had been unfairly constructively dismissed.