The problem with overlooking ‘soft and fluffy’ HR
Over the last ten years of advising many hundreds of different owner-managed businesses across a vast range of different sectors, it has struck me that whilst some businesses find employment law processes relatively easy to execute and manage, others find it a real challenge. At the time of writing this article, only this morning I have advised a business in respect of a change to terms and conditions exercise; in short, a particular employee’s hours do not suit the business and the employer wants to change them. Fair enough. I advised what any competent advisor would do including that a contract can’t be changed unilaterally, and therefore the primary aim should be change by agreement; necessitating the need for a decent business case well explained, consulting with the employee, giving notice and overall being reasonable. Immediately the employer branded the exercise as a ‘nightmare’, ‘bound to end up in Employment Tribunal’ and ‘costing him thousands of pounds’.
Initially I was surprised by such an interpretation. I can understand the process for changing terms and conditions can be involved, and perhaps not aligning with what many people think about how simple such a change must be to effect, but this was further than I’m used to.
After some reflection, I believe what it comes down to, and what would ignite such a reaction, is a clear lack of trust that exists between the employer and the employee. With an initial setting of mistrust as context and background, I can understand why the employer would be so reluctant to embark upon a process which is fundamentally reliant upon collaboration, empathy and trust on both sides.
The truth is that whilst employment law is employment law, the steps involved in a given process being somewhat prescriptive, the success or otherwise of its implementation often comes down to the existing culture within the organisation. A culture absent of trust will undoubtedly make any employment law process difficult, protracted and always feeling like it is teetering on the edge of litigation. A culture of trust, openness and understanding will often result in the very same process feeling smooth, collaborative and progressive, not bereft of difficult conversations or disagreements, but the employer feeling in control and both parties founded in a base level of respect.
Whether you employ 2 staff or 2000 staff, when issues within the business occur (and occur they will), I believe the culture you create goes a significant way to determining how successful you will be in implementing what can be difficult employment law processes and procedures needed for the good of the business; whether that be updated policy documents adversely impacting staff, changing terms and conditions of employment, lay-offs, short-time working, redundancies or otherwise.
My advice is not to overlook what many hard-faced, purely commercial business-owners regard as the ‘soft and fluffy’ HR stuff needed to build the right culture. It might be the ‘soft and fluffy’ stuff which determines the success of the ‘hard’ stuff.