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The last five or so years have been blighted by the recession causing vast unemployment in the UK, but the tide has turned, it seems, recruitment is on the up and companies across the UK are doing well. Many more people are now in employment so that the unemployment rate has come down to 7%. However it seems that we do not have the right level of skills available to service growing demand as a quarter of vacancies remain unfilled, according to a report by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills http://www.ukces.org.uk . Apparently, we have gone from unemployment to skills shortage.
It seems that one in five jobs can not be filled due to a skills shortage which is it claimed will affect the current economic recovery. Skills shortage vacancies are growing faster than other vacancies.
Employees with foreign language skills are in very short supply for French and German and now with more business being done in China there is a demand for Cantonese and Mandarin speakers.
So what could be the cause of the current skills shortage? One main reason is a failure of companies to invest in training and development. Training and development is a cost and, when times are tough, it is the first thing to bite the bullet. Therefore during the recession many companies did not invest. However, it is short termism to cut the development of skills as skilled workers are the lifeblood of any organisation. During tough times it is important to keep up succession planning, apprenticeships, graduate placements, traineeships, career development, personal development plans as part of appraisals and maintain a training and development strategy for new as well as existing workers. These have all died a death in recent years and, according to the report, training available has remained on the same level for the last ten years.
Apparently there is a skills gap with science, technology, engineering and maths. The popularity of these subjects in school should be encouraged more than they are now, because it is in school that a skills shortage can start. Other skills which are in short supply are nurses, HR professionals, chefs, mechanics, electricians and machine minders. Whilst the government is aiming to curb immigration the UKBA publishes a list of government approved occupation shortages on Tier 2 of the Points-Based System http://www.ukba.homeoffice.gov.uk/sitecontent/documents/workingintheuk/shortageoccupationlistnov11.pdf
There is a difficulty in the UK to resource low skilled jobs. Many UK workers will not undertake a great deal of of the low skilled jobs available. To solve skills gaps employers are recruiting highly skilled workers for low skilled jobs which results in demotivated bored employees.
There is a great deal of media attention on the influx of eastern European workers who will gladly undertake for example vegetable picking in the fields of Lincolnshire and hospital cleaning, jobs which UK workers, it seems, will not touch with a barge pole. Because these jobs are lowly paid, it is often more lucrative to remain on benefits than take a job, a situation that the government is looking at to ensure that work pays. However, that will take time. In the meantime the doors of the UK are now open to Bulgarians and Romanians who will probably make their way here on the promise of work that pays better than in their own countries.
In the meantime the UK needs to get its act together and start thinking about its long term ability to deal with the skills shortage.
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Today, 28 January, is International Fun At Work Day where everyone should be having fun at work. The consequences for employees who don’t enjoy their job are not very good for companies.
A happy, engaged workforce who look forward to going to work and doing a good job adds impact to the bottom line through great team work, improved morale and motivation. Happy workers are loyal and therefore reduce the costs of employee retention, recruitment and training. Sickness absence is also reduced.
We all spend a lot of time at work so it would be best if it was enjoyable. So for those employees who are not quite so motivated what can an employer do to ensure that all their employees have fun at work?
Well employers could begin with their new recruits and hold a welcome party. Built into their induction plan there could be a scavenger hunt where the new recruit goes off to meet co workers to find out trivia about them, to gather supplies and find their way around the building. The scavenger hunt could end with a welcome meal with their new team.
It is important to ensure that jobs are interesting and a job description is varied with lots of team work interaction is available to provide job satisfaction.
Many office meetings can often be a little tedious, but encouraging laughter at the start of the meeting perhaps by sharing a joke or a humerous story can help pave the way to a more interesting get together. Consider holding a meeting in an alternative venue to a conference room – at the park or for breakfast at a local restaurant might bring forward some creative ideas.
Employee birthdays could be celebrated with cakes for the team. Alternatives could be a day off with pay, flowers or a gift such as cinema tickets.
Employee well being is very important and to show staff that they care employers could invite in local health professionals or gym reps to discuss health and well being issues. Classes on blood pressure, cholesterol management or body fat testing, smoking cessation, stress management or healthy eating might be useful.
Volunteering for fun could be encouraged. Many companies take part in charitable projects where their employees give up their time to help those who are less fortunate. The projects are often reported on in the press which can add to a good business image.
Creating a nice work environment is essential perhaps encouraging a home away from home. Employees should be encouraged to personalise their work space with flowers, photos, plants, etc. Where the office environment is windowless it is important to create a relaxing ambient area with large plants, soft seating and lighting and possibly music where employees can take some time out from their working day. Placing the coffee machine and a chair near the photo copier could help employees while away the time whilst a huge batch of paperwork is being processed.
Employees should be encouraged to take regular breaks from work to have a chat with colleagues over a coffee. Lunch breaks in the fresh air should be essential to refresh tired eyes and brains and stop the mid-afternoon lull. Team lunches on a regular basis can help bring the team together in a relaxed environment.
Other ideas that might be of interest to ensure staff have fun at work are dress down days, bring a pet (or child or mum) to work day. suggestion boxes/graffiti walls, employee competitions and awards, flexible hours and Friday afternoons off.
Whatever the size of company, there is always something an employer can do to ensure their employees have fun at work for little cost.
It was announced late last year that the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is to conduct research into pregnancy and maternity discrimination in the UK. This will bring the data up to date as the last time research was conducted was in 2005. It was discovered then that millions of pounds were lost to women in terms of maternity pay as they were dismissed before they could claim it.
From my own experience I would say that pregnancy and maternity discrimination is rife in the UK as I am often contacted by women who are receiving unfair treatment in the workplace whilst they are expecting a baby or are on maternity leave. Often coming back to work is difficult particularly when flexible working is requested. Some employers have even said to me off the record that they would not employ a young woman for fear of her going off on maternity leave.
Employment tribunal figures will add weight to my own experience showing that workplace discrimination is increasing. The 2011/2012 annual statistics record that there were 10,800 sex discrimination claims with an additional 28,800 equal pay claims and 1,900 pregnancy related claims. This picture will more than likely be reflected in the e 2012/2013 statistics. The quarterly statistics for April to June 2013 revealed a 40% increase in sex discrimination claims in that period.
It does not help that the leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage, has recently announced the abolition of maternity pay if the party came to power and that women who take time off to have children are worth less to their employers. Hardly the views of a progressive political leader in tune with the progressive modern day thinking.
With the one million pound budget researchers will look at employment practices in the workplace in relation to pregnant women or those on maternity leave to gauge the extent of unequal and unfair treatment to seek the causes and effects. The effect on families and the economy will be examined.
From the findings of the research project the EHRC will assess how best to raise awareness of pregnancy and maternity rights.
The case of Lord Rennard, a key figure in the Lib Dems party, accused of alleged sexual harassment shows the importance of conducting a thorough sexual harassment investigation and carefully managing the fall out from what is often a very fraught situation. This is particularly difficult for the Lib Dems as Lord Rennard is a high profile figure in the party having been inaugural in its creation.
The outcome from the investigation concluded there was insufficient evidence to show that Lord Rennard did actually sexually harassment three women as they claimed despite the adage that given there are three complainants there could be no smoke without fire…..
Initially it seemed that Nick Clegg wasn’t going to take much action, but now seems to have bowed to external pressure. Lord Rennard has been asked to apologise to the women concerned and has refused to do so; he has therefore been suspended from the political party and is seeking legal action. Now the Lib Dems are conducting a further investigation into Lord Rennard allegedly bringing the party into disrepute for failing to apologise. This allegation is usually considered to be gross misconduct and carries the penalty of summary dismissal if proven on the balance of probabilities.
With any sexual harassment investigation it is important to conduct the process as quickly and as sensitively as possible. Inadequate handling of a situation in employment can lead to a resignation claiming constructive dismissal and discrimination in an employment tribunal. Many people are reluctant to make a formal complaint in the workplace and it takes courage, so when they do so, the matter needs to be handled well. Any complaint should be in writing as a grievance for the employer to take action. Thought needs to be given as to handling the personalities involved. If the individuals work closely together it might be necessary to put both parties on garden leave whilst an investigation is completed. Support and counselling should be available for both parties.
If there are no witnesses to the allegation it is really important to evaluate the evidence gained. Consideration should be given to how detailed is the evidence for each individual, what is the conduct of the individuals and their willingness to contribute responses when asked, are there any discrepancies and can these be investigated further, are there any explanations for particular inconsistencies in evidence reasonable, are the explanations credible in the context in which they are given, does any explanation given by an individual detract from their evidence, have there been other complaints, etc. It can often be difficult to prove either way with one person’s word against another. Circumstantial evidence may need to be used.
The full facts in the form of witness statements should be gathered from the complainant, the alleged perpetrator and any witnesses. The interviews should be conducted sensitively and confidentially and the witness statements should be signed and dated.
If the complaint is not upheld the complainant needs to be advised of the right to appeal.
The main issues following an investigation are then reintegration and a possible backlash. HR may lead on reintegration or alternatively it can be a manager. Generally it should be the alleged harasser who should be relocated rather than the complainant, however, this could be difficult in a small company. Mediation might be a useful alternative to reduce conflict.
It is important to watch out for any backlash if relocation is not possible. If the alleged harasser is in a position of power there might be unfavourable treatment of the complainant, which is victimisation, a form of discrimination for having raised a complaint and pursuable in an employment tribunal.
Having clear policies in place that cover equal opportunities and harassment are essential to provide clear guidelines to all employees as to how they should conduct themselves in the workplace.
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At the weekend I watched a programme on Channel 4 called Don’t Look Down (http://www.channel4.com/programmes/dont-look-down) where the practice of young people climbing such things as very tall cranes without safety wires, known as urban free climinbing, was featured With graphic filming of what it is like to be 100 feet or more in the air, which made me feel physically sick as I do not like heights, clearly the people being filmed were enjoying the thrill and exhilaration.
Apparently the craze started in Russia and has now spread to the UK. Whilst there have yet been no deaths from this bizarre sport in the UK, only time will tell whether they will remain a zero statistic. Of course, whilst this is an extreme sport, many employees take part in other sports which can be dangerous, such as racing, skiing, rugby, horse riding, snowboarding, mountain climbing, all of which carry the risk of something going wrong. These issues lead to the consideration of what stance employers can take if their employees partake in extreme or dangerous sports particularly with the risk of accident, disability or death.
The consequences of an employee being off due to sickness absence after taking part in an extreme or dangerous sport will be the cost to an employer. Depending on the length of sickness absence, the employer will have to pay out SSP or occupational sick pay and possibly recruit a temporary member of staff to cover workload if the absence is to continue for several months. To protect themselves an employer can add a caveat into an employment contract or employee handbook so that if an employee has an accident due to their leisure pursuits the employer is not liable for sick pay. If existing terms and conditions are being changed in this manner it is important to consult and get agreement with the workforce. A policy related to a death in service benefit may also be treated in the same manner.
Employees at risk of not being paid sick pay should they have an accident can take out personal insurance.
Management of any long term sickness problem due to the taking part in extreme sports needs to be handled carefully. Any injuries sustained will be because of the employee’s failure to manage the situation correctly and may not be a capability issue. Therefore the employer may consider the use of the disciplinary procedure for this conduct issue if the employee is unable to return to work. If the employee has become disabled through their sporting activities the employer will need to ensure there is no discrimination
The recent high profile case of Nigella Lawson snorting cocaine in order to stay awake at night to write her cookery books, (or so she claims) raises the potential issue for employers about how to manage drugs in the workplace.
Whereas employees who are under the influence of alcohol may be obvious, the immediate effects on employees who are taking drugs may not be. Nevertheless drug taking and its effects in the workplace can be serious particularly if linked to drug abuse and drug addiction. Employers need to be aware of the consequences of employees taking drugs, both legal and illegal and should never turn a blind eye to any drug-related situation in the workplace. If they do they could be guilty of condoning a situation if not being prosecuted under health and safety legislation if not due to criminal charges.
A machine has been developed which is similar to a breathalyser which is able to test for drugs at the roadside will soon be available in the next two years. The Home Office has agreed to this and consultation has been undertaken. It is an offence to drive having taken drugs. At the moment the police use a pupilometer which tests the dilation of pupils. They also use a field impairment test that tests if someone can walk one meter in a straight line, stand on one leg and touch their finger to their nose. There is zero tolerance with cannabis. It carries a twelve month sentence or a £5,000 fine and three month prison sentence.
Prescription drugs taken for depression, such as benzodiazapene can cause many issues. It is the second most problematic drug after cannabis. Whilst a prescribed dose may be ok, taking more can impair someone’s ability to drive and operate machinery. Research done by the DWP in 2008 revealed that 2% of the workforce in the UK use cocaine daily at work which is around one million employees. It is a short acting drug; its effects last for 45 minutes to one hour if snorted or injected.
Drug misuse can contribute to absenteeism, poor timekeeping, poor productivity, damaged work relationships, accidents and ultimately the bottom line.
Whilst for office based staff the effects of drug taking may not cause health and safety issues, for those employees who operate machinery or drive the consequences can be serious.
Many employers operate drug testing to ensure their employees are safe. This can be introduced provided the process is open and transparent either linked to computer-generated random testing or post incident. Just picking on certain individuals is fraught with employment tribunal risks, Drug testing which is monitoring of employees is linked to data protection legislation and needs to be adhered to. Further information can be found in the relevant code of practice.
Employers should have clear policies and procedures in place to ensure that all employees know what to expect. A policy on drugs in the workplace may be linked to the disciplinary policy. Employees should be made aware that the police may be involved as drug taking is a criminal offence as Nigella Lawson is now finding out.
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The French First Lady Valerie Trierweiler has been in the news for entering hospital with a “coup de bleus” after the announcement of Francois Hollande, the french president’s affair with a french actress. Coup de bleus means a touch of the blues or depression. Whilst it is usually rare for someone to go into hospital for such a condition, it can have a huge impact on those who suffer from the medical condition. Employers need to understand about coping with depression in the workplace.
January is a depressing time of the year anyway after the colourful festivities of Christmas and the New Year, the weather is cold and grey and the shops full of dowdy sale items. 20 January this year was declared to be Blooming Monday as the third Monday in January is declared to be the most depressing day of the year. The long hot summer days certainly do seem far away. To combat the effect workers are being encouraged to wear bright clothes on this day – http://www.blooming-monday.com/
Seasonal affective disorder is a temporary condition linked to the low light levels in and winter (mainly December, January and February) in the UK and is one of a range of disorders related to depression. The symptoms are low mood, lack of interest in life, less activity than normal and sleeping more than usual. It can be treated by sitting in front of a light box, cognitive behaviourial therapy and/or anti depressants. More information http://www.sada.org.uk/.
Another type of depression related condition is bipolar disorder. An employee with this condition can be difficult to manage due to the nature of the condition and I have supported several clients in this area. Bi polar disorder is characterised by fluctuating moods between mania and depression. An employee with the condition can be disruptive, failing to follow instructions and making mistakes.
Anxiety disorders can be manifested by restlessness, fatigue, difficulty in concentrating and excess worrying. Employees will seek constant reassurance about their performance.
It is important to manage depression-related conditions in the workplace as the condition is linked to sickness absence and poor productivity which can impact on the bottom line. Individuals with depression are more likely to lose their jobs due to conduct and capability issues. Statistics show they are more likely to keep changing their jobs.
It is important for employers to keep on top of any depression related condition with an employee. Regular documented meetings to discuss the situation are needed and enlisting the help of a good occupational therapist is vital to manage depression related conditions if they become serious. An occupational health report can help reduce sickness absence and can help support a capability programme. An occupational health advisor is preferable to approaching the employee’s GP for a report as occupational health will be working in your favour whereas the GP will be working in favour of the employee. It is important to try and manage the employee to get them back to working normally. If ultimately dismissal is on the cards a report can be invaluable should an employment tribunal claim be pursued.
“Image courtesy of marin / FreeDigitalPhotos.net”.
This week (13-19 January) is National Obesity Week which aims to promote awareness and management of obesity issues. Obesity is a growing epidemic in the UK – we have one of the fattest nations in Europe and are mirroring the US where this alarming trend started. It is forecast that if the trend is not contained by 2050 half of the UK population will be overweight. Many restaurants these days tend to promote “eat as much as you like” menus and fast food restaurants always try to up sell their foods such as MacDonalds where the assistants always ask “would you like fries with that?”. TV programmes regularly bring the matter to our attention.
Obesity and weight management causes a great deal of health problems and is putting a huge strain on the NHS. A recent TV programme highlighted that special furniture is being used in hospitals to accommodate larger patients such as bigger beds and chairs. This is a cost to taxpayers. The problem is beginning at an early age with many school age children who are overweight. Successive governments have sought to provide education on healthy eating in schools to help the problem, providing guidance on school meals and promoting physical education. Whilst over eating is a big cause of obesity, the lack of physical exercise is the main contributor whilst a genetic link to being over weight has also been discovered.. Obesity can cause diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and an increase in certain cancers. Prevention rather than cure should be at the heart of weight management.
An article published by Personnel Today a few years ago highlighted the problem of discrimination in the workplace against the obese. Apparently many companies would turn away from employing an obese candidate, would pass them over for promotion and they are more likely to be made redundant. The Equality Act does not protect those who are fat specifically; those who feel they are being discriminated against have to rely on other protected characteristics. Research done a few years ago in the UK highlighted the existence of stereotyping in that fat people are perceived to be emotionally impaired, socially handicapped and as possessing negative personality traits.
Dismissal for being fat per se is unlawful, however, a company may possibly be able to rely on capability if an employee is unable to do their job correctly as the impact of impaired mobility, reduced stamina, breathlessness and sleep apnoea caused by obesity may reduce job performance. Statistics show that an obese person is twice as likely to be off work sick than a healthy employee.
Employers have an essential role to play as work may contribute to the condition given that sedentary jobs are now very common and the way we all work now avoids physical activity together with the many hours we all spend in our cars driving, rather than walking to work.
High-calorie, high-fat food is often available in canteens and vending facilities dispense high sugar drinks. Buffet lunches are commonplace and are often a source of enormous calorie intake with the lazy style of eating.
So what can employers do?
Promoting health and well being in the workplace should be a top priority
Identify local facilities such as gyms/schemes to encourage activity possibly offering gym membership as an employee benefit
Review the canteen food menu and vending machine foods. Where possible subsidise healthy options
Encourage exercise by putting in place bike racks and providing loans to buy bikes
Provide coaching and counselling through an employee assistance programme
On 6 April 2014 early conciliation with ACAS will be introduced as part of the employment tribunal system reform as laid down in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013. An employee who wishes to make an employment tribunal claim will need to contact ACAS first and ACAS will resolve to settle the dispute first.
The conciliation process, if agreed, will take one month to complete (with a two week extension in some difficult cases) and attempt to negotiate a settlement. A claim may only proceed to the employment tribunal after a certificate has been issued by ACAS.
The claimant must complete and submit a short form to ACAS an ‘Early Conciliation’ form giving their basic details and those of their employer only. Details of the incident are not required at this stage.
Submission of the Early Conciliation form will ‘stop the clock’ on the time period for a prospective claimant to submit their claim. Time will only start to run again when the certificate is issued by ACAS. Therefore the time limit for most claims will be three months plus the time during which ACAS conciliates. If time is due to expire within one month of the clock re-starting after ACAS involvement, there will be a minimum one month period to enter the claim.
The decision to accept the offer of conciliation will be voluntary. Claimants may decline to settle and proceed to lodge their claim. Respondents can also decline to take part.
A prospective Respondent will only be contacted by ACAS if the employee is interested in conciliation. However, it is open to prospective Respondents to initiate the conciliation process before an employee does so. In the event that a claim is submitted, post-claim conciliation through ACAS will still be available in the same way as it is currently.
It will be an administrative hurdle for claimants and time will tell if this along with the other reforms implemented with the legislation will reduce what has been an increasing number of employment tribunal claims in recent years.