Health & Safety

18 Feb
by Donna Obstfeld, posted in Blog   |  No Comments

Health & Safety is essential for all employers, no matter how large or small your business.

Watch our Top Tip to find out more.

Why Ignoring The Reality Of Sexual Harassment And Gender Inequality Could Be Your Undoing In 2018

16 Jan
by Donna Obstfeld, posted in Blog   |  No Comments

I was on BBC radio again the other day, discussing the fallout from Carrie Gracie’s resignation over gender pay discrimination. (If you want to listen to the clip, just click HERE)

Quite rightly, the issue of gender inequality has reared its head a lot in the last few months, and I think it’s one that looks set to define 2018 for a lot of businesses and their HR professionals.

But it won’t be alone, because sexual harassment will be right up there with it.

With the #metoo initiative, the Harvey Weinstein scandal and Kevin Spacey, it feels like every week there’s another prominent public figure outed for their sexually harassing behaviour.

It’s awful, and terrible, and not what this world should be like.

And for the purposes of this article, it’s also not what the workplace should be like.

But sadly, for lots of businesses, it’s a problem that needs dealing with, and as I was reminded over the holiday break, there’s a right way and wrong way to deal with it.

The Problem

As everyone was winding down for the festive season, I got a call from a client: they’d had a nightmare at their ‘Christmas Party’.

One of the male employees (Male A), put his arm around a female colleague for a photo and touched her inappropriately in the process.

Another male employee (Male B) was the female’s boyfriend and witnessed the event.

Chaos ensued, with Male A punching Male B in the face.

What Is The Correct Course Of Action?

As the boss, what would you do when faced with the situation?

Was this just ‘alcohol-fuelled chivalry’ that could be laughed off?

Or is it assault?

Does the female have the right to be defended, and does Male B have the right to defend? (And if so, to what extent?)

The problem in our case was that the business simply didn’t want to deal with it, and to be honest you can understand why.

The trouble is, as a business owner, you’ve got no choice – you’ve got to be the one able to make decisions and have uncomfortable conversations.

But this MD didn’t want to do that – instead, he hoped it could all be dealt with informally, and consequently, he nearly ended up with a sexual harassment claim against the business.

And that’s what I want to make clear: sexual harassment accusations are not ‘light-hearted’ things.

They’re serious. They can cause significant problems for you and your ability to keep trading.

Knowing what you can and can’t do when it comes to sexual harassment, and understanding what the law requires are VITALLY important.

And that’s where a code of conduct and an employee handbook come in.

If you’re ready to get serious about protecting your business from these sorts of threats, then get in touch – you can email me personally at and I’ll do all I can to help.

Oh, and out of interest, what would you have done with Male A, Male B and our female employee? And what do you think is the ‘right’ thing to do? Comment below and let me know…

Why Corporate Jargon And Nonsense Stops Businesses Taking HR Seriously

10 Jan
by Donna Obstfeld, posted in Blog, Compensation, Contract of employment, Employees, Employment, Human Resources, people manaagment, Policies and Procedures, Recruitment, training   |  No Comments

(And The Four Processes That Most Business Owners  Need To Go Through When Dealing With Staff)

I’ve been studying and practicing HR for over 25 years. 

Which means that I ‘get it’.  I ‘understand’ it.  However ludicrously worded something is, or however jargonny a contract sounds, I can usually root out the genuine meaning, and what it means in the real world.

However, use the term HR or Human Resources in front of your common or garden business owner and you’ll often get a blank look, especially if they have never worked in large organisations or corporations that have had a whole HR department dedicated to looking after the staff, employees, and contractors.

But here’s the thing, whether you’re Mickey the Butcher or Microsoft, you still need to be able to practice HR correctly – failure to do so puts your business under significant risk from an employment tribunal.

With that in mind, this article is designed to help you to do exactly that, by cutting through the jargon and breaking down the four processes that you’ll need to go through, whether you’ve got two employees or 20,000.

So the first area is recruitment: the hiring of the right staff. 

Make sure that you know the skills that you need and that the people that you are hiring have the ability to do the job, but don’t forget that attitude and aptitude are also really, really important. 

Making sure that somebody has the right attitude, is going to fit in with your business and your culture will engage with your goals and has the ability to learn the rest of the skills that you need to give them is absolutely vital. 

Why?  Nobody is going to come fully formed, so you need employees who can be moulded, and moulding is all about attitude. 

And, as a plus point, when employees are not fully formed, they are generally easier to work with – they don’t have the same fixed ideas about things that someone who has ‘been there and done it’ has.

In addition, it is also really good idea to hire people who are better than you at key elements of the business. You shouldn’t be sweating over the books when someone else will be able to do them quicker, easier and more effectively than you.

Similarly, you may be good and able to type your letters up yourself, but actually having a VA or an in-house PA is going to drive your business forward much quicker for you as they are freeing up your time. 


The second element is Employee Relations

Now, this is a big area for HR!

At the most basic level, it means giving all of the staff that you hire a contract of employment. 

It means making sure that you have made decisions about:

  • How much holiday they are going to have
  • What you are going to do in the event of sick pay
  • What dress code you want within your business
  • What time you want people at work
  • What time they work till
  • How long their breaks are

Sound extreme?  Perhaps.  But by documenting all of these from day one, there is absolute clarity for you and for your staff, and no one can pretend that they didn’t know what was expected of them.


The third element is training, development and learning. 

Now, all three of these take time and happen in multiple phases, but all business owners need to be mindful of them; otherwise, they generally don’t happen.

Generally, the first phase is known as “induction” and when you first bring somebody into the business, the best way to get them to hit the ground running is to induct them properly. 

Once they know what they should be doing, it is all about monitoring and managing their performance so they are performing at the best possible level that they can.

And again it takes practice and they will improve over time, which is why regular documented progress meetings are a really, really useful tool.  No matter what size your business, whether you have one employee, five employees, or 25 employees, sitting down with your staff on a regular basis, sharing your vision, sharing the goals and asking them to deliver key elements of those goals is essential to moving the business forward. 


And then there is reward. 

Reward can come in multiple formats. 

Pay is the most obvious but there is also commission, bonus and other incentives which you give to your staff to encourage them to reach the targets that you set or to reward them for achieving certain outcomes. 

However, reward is also about the environment in which people work. 

It’s about the way in which you treat them, the pizza in the office on a Friday or giving people a day off to go and deal with an emergency because you know that they have been in the office late working on projects for the last three or four weeks.  

Reward is also about the culture and the corporate social responsibility that the business shows. 

Many youngsters nowadays are choosing to work or not work for companies based on the ethos of those companies. 

People are becoming more picky and people want to work for great bosses and brands that they believe in. 

Consequently, positioning your business (no matter how big or small) as an employer of choice will really help you to recruit and to retain the right staff for your business. 

So, as a business owner, the next time you think about your role within the business, you are not only the finance person, the marketing person and the salesperson – you are also the HR person. 

You are responsible for the recruitment and retention, the training and development, the reward and the frameworks within which your staff work and operate. You are also responsible for the way in which your staff are going to help you to achieve business success, by making sure that you are an effective manager.  That takes practice, but as they say, practice makes perfect.

Elder Care and the Impact on Business

24 May
by Donna Obstfeld, posted in Blog   |  No Comments

With the General Election just around the corner, one thing has been in the news A LOT: elder care.

The Conservative Party announced that as part of their manifesto, workers would be given a legal right to take a year’s leave to care for elderly relatives.

(There has been what some have called a “u-turn”, with May announcing a “cap” on how much people pay for care, but that’s another story for another time!)

Obviously, as this involved workers, it was slap bang in my remit, so I got a call from BBC Berkshire asking me to go on to the radio and discuss it.

I love doing these radio interviews as they help me to think about and talk through some of my thoughts on the issues raised.

I always try to give a balanced view as I can almost always see the situation from both the employer and employee perspective.

However, on this occasion, I was also focused on the differences between micro and small employers and the impact this kind of policy would have on them vs a larger employer.

In summary, a qualifying employee would be entitled to up to a year off to care for an elderly relative.

My initial thoughts:

  • Does it have to be a parent, or would you qualify for an in-law, a grandparent or Old Manan aunt without closer relatives?
  • Are you only allowed one period of absence or can you have a year off for each of your elderly relatives? And if so, what would the time gap need to be between the absences need to be?
  • Does the company have to hold your position open for you, or could it be one of equal standing?
  • What proof is needed prior to being able to take leave?
  • What happens if the elderly person passes away before the end of the year, can the employee return early? What impact does this have on the fixed term temp hired to cover the leave of absence?
  • What happens if the elderly person still requires care at the end of the year and perhaps their condition has deteriorated?

Unlike childcare leave, eldercare appears to be much more complex for employers. A parent can plan for the future care of their child from a specific point in time. The future is much less certain for an adult carer.

Yet the need for time off remains very real and for many employees, there are elder and child care issues (either as a parent or a grandparent) to be managed effectively so that while employees are at work they are performing at the highest and most focused levels, whilst still being able to support the various members of their family.

I do not believe giving people a year off work is the solution.

For the smallest of businesses, having even one employee off could be 10, 25 or 50 percent of the workforce.

If an employer has 2 or more employees requiring time off to care for elderly relatives, a business is just going to stall and potentially fail.

Employers must be able to hire, retain and rely on good quality, highly engaged employees.

A large employer with hundreds or thousands of employees will be able to manage with some employees taking a year off unpaid, but this is just not the case for the smallest of employers.

So, what is the answer?

I believe that employment legislation needs to be much more flexible, enabling and empowering for both employers and employees.

No one has a crystal ball and no one can predict what support elderly relatives will require in 12 months’ time.

By introducing a more flexible approach to work and extending the right to request flexible working to all employees, staff with ongoing responsibilities could potentially reduce their days, reduce their hours and / or take up job shares.

While this won’t work for all roles in all companies, there are advantages to this approach:

  • The employee has the right to ask and must put together a business proposal to support their request
  • The employer must consider the request properly and respond in reasonable timescale, but is not obliged to accept the proposal if the business cannot cope
  • Only one request would be allowed in a 12 month period, allowing for consistency within the business
  • The change would be a contractual change to terms and conditions
  • The skills and knowledge of the older worker are retained in the business
  • This is a long term option to allow for care over an extended period of time, possibly for multiple family members
  • This allows people who still require an income to earn while providing care for their elderly relatives


File 24-05-2017, 14 56 39At a time when older workers’ need to stay in the workforce longer and longer for financial reasons and already have a tough time competing with younger employees for jobs, introducing a year off policy is just going to deter employers from hiring older workers.

There is already a significant concern about the risk of an age discrimination claim among employers and the more extensive the ‘rights’ of older employees, the more cautious employers will be about taking on older staff.

In addition, caring responsibilities are generally the domain of the female members of the family and this will be even more so if a year off is granted unpaid as the females are generally paid less than males (not saying this is right or always the case, but this is evidenced in all statistics).

Therefore, the impact on the family income – while still significant – is not as high as it would be if a male member of the family had to take a year off unpaid. This sort of policy will be another factor suppressing the employment and pay of female employees and could again result in discrimination cases, this time for gender.

Business owners in small companies already feel like they have a noose around their necks when it comes to employing staff. They need human resources to grow their business, but the more complex employment legislation becomes, the more employers will look for alternative employment models, including the use of overseas workers, freelancers, zero hour contracts or temporary staff.

Flexibility is going to be essential in futureproofing the UK workforce and enabling staff to take a year off unpaid and guaranteeing them a job on return is not conducive to a competitive, dynamic, economy.

Small businesses make up 99.3% of private sector business but only 24% of small businesses employ staff and this must increase significantly if the UK economy is going to continue to thrive.


What do you think?  I’d love to get your view on this issue, so comment below and let me know.

I’ve got the brains, you’ve got the looks …….Let’s make lots of money

16 May
by Donna Obstfeld, posted in Blog   |  No Comments

Following comments by Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellows at a charity event for the Belgravia Society, I was asked by BBC 3 Counties Radio Presenter Roberto Perrone which was more important to employers Beauty or Brains. You can hear my short interview here, Brains or Beauty?but as always with my interviews, they get me thinking much deeper about a topic and therefore here, I share more of my thoughts from an employment perspective.

As the Pet Shop Boys lyrics (the title of this blog) from the song Opportunities suggests, there is a balance to be had. Having looks without the brains is useless in business. The world’s most successful models, many of whom have gone on to start their own businesses, have either been highly intelligent women (or men), or have had the nous to put some very astute people around them and perhaps more importantly, have known how to hold those people to account.

Having good looks can certainly buy you more time in an interview process; but if the interviewer knows how to interview properly, the door is very firmly shut if the candidate does not have the brains to do the job. And therein lies a problem! Many interviewers do not interview properly and then wonder why the staff they have hired can’t actually do the job they were asked to do. Regardless of how a person looks, if you are trusting them with your business, with your clients and with your profits, they MUST be able to do the job, and ideally do it better than you can do it yourself!

Another aspect of brains vs beauty debate is the labels and associated definitions themselves. Who determines beauty and how do you measure brains?

I have met some ‘beautiful’ people who dress badly, make no effort to make themselves presentable and some who are so shy that they just hide behind ‘a bad look’. On the other hand, I have met people I would not describe as being naturally beautiful, but they always look good. Clothes fit properly, they are good colour and style matches, clothes and accessories are always co-ordinated and they are always well groomed. Given equal ‘brains’, who would you hire, the more beautiful person who doesn’t care about what they look like, or the less ‘beautiful’ person who takes the time to make the best of themselves?

Equally, I have met some of the most ‘brainy’ individuals who have absolutely no common Who to employ?sense, no ability to put their ideas out to the general population and no interpersonal skills whatsoever. Are these people the best employees for my business? Well, that depends on what the business is and what the roles are. There are companies who need these sorts of people, but they often also employ someone to be the spokesperson, the public face or the intermediary, rather than let the ‘brains’ lose on the public.

As with many things ‘HR’, circumstances are vital. Understanding what is really needed in an organisation or role at any point in time is essential. You may need brains. You may need beauty. But I would strongly argue, that getting the right balance between the two (for your business) is the key to business success.

Barking Mad?

19 Apr
by Donna Obstfeld, posted in Blog   |  No Comments

Should Employers allow their staff to take dogs (or other animals) to work?

In this weeks video blog, Donna let’s you in on her deepest fears and urges all employers to think about how you keep your staff happy at work.

Achieving a balance between the conflicting desires of staff is difficult at the best of times, but allowing dogs (and other pets) into a workplace when some staff may be allergic to them or have a phobia, can lead to claims for constructive dismissal or disability discrimination.

A clear policy is essential and any job applicants should be made aware of the workplace culture and the pets at work policy during the recruitment process. If they are the best person for the job, it should be their decision to turn down a postion due to pets in the workplace, rather than your decision not to offer the role.

If you are adopting a new policy to allow pets in the workplace, extensive consultation should take place to ensure that all staff are comfortable with the situation. If anyone is not happy about it, then the safest option is not to proceed with the implementation.

Too old for work?

30 Mar
by Donna Obstfeld, posted in Blog, Discrimination, gender   |  No Comments

I am absolutely useless at guessing a persons age.

Whether they are a child, a young adult, a mature adult or an octogenarian, I am just one of those people who can’t tell how old a person is.

I was once told that we needed to organise a gift for a fellow member of an organisation for his 100th birthday.

 “100, are you sure? Can we check that with someone? There is no way he is 100, I had him down for mid to late 70s!” Chess

This little old man was absolutely incredible. He loved chess and still taught it in schools and clubs. On tournament days, he loved nothing more than walking up and down the ranks of players, assessing their positions and providing feedback to them after the game. He would be on his feet from 9 am – 5 pm with a short break for lunch.

100? How?!

With the abolition of the default retirement age (DRA) in April 2011, business owners are increasingly struggling with effectively managing older workers.

The risk of an employment tribunal (ET) case against them for age discrimination looms large over the heads of many employers who are too scared to have a conversation about:

  • Poor performance
  • The employee no longer able to cope
  • The number of mistakes being made
  • The excessive time taken to complete simple tasks.

We are increasingly being asked to help manage older workers out of the business, but in many cases the older worker has been with the business for 20+ years, is part of the furniture and ‘as good as family’.

One client had a 75-year-old caretaker who still insisted climbing ladders to change lightbulbs and cycling home in the dark after locking up the hall following council meetings.

Another client has tried to have a conversation with a member of staff who is making far too many mistakes, only to be told that they will have to carry him out dead as he has no savings, this is his only income and he has no intention of retiring…. ever!

And I had to persuade my own grandma at 80+ to retire as her colleagues were having to redo all her work due to the number of mistakes she was making. How do you tell someone who had run her own businesses, been a highly efficient secretary / PA and had in her latter years been working for a family friend who had known her since he was 5 years old, that she could no longer do the job for which she was being paid?

I could go on.

The harsh reality is that with no DRA, if you want to go belt and braces to avoid the risk of an ET, you have to performance manage the older worker out and that means disciplinary and ultimately dismissal.

For most of our clients this is the least preferred option. They have respect for these workers, they like these employees, in many cases they have learnt a lot from these employees and yet ……..

There is no effective, watertight alternative.

70 womanA BBC article this week disclosed the statistic that the number of women retiring in their 70s has doubled in the last 4 years, from 5.6% to 11.3%. For men the number retiring in their 70’s is 15.6%.

There are lots of reasons for the increase including people living healthier for longer, pensions not being sufficient to support longer lives and people wanting to ‘have a purpose’ for longer.

While there are many advantages for business owners such as an experienced and committed workforce, the disadvantages are beginning to mount up.

Not only are some older workers no longer able to cope, but deteriorating health of themselves or their partners begin to lead to increased absences.  There is also a lack of vacancies for younger workers to join the business and progression is often blocked resulting in people leaving as more senior positions are filled with older workers.

When the older workers do leave, there is then a skills gap in the business as experienced people have left to progress their careers elsewhere.

So what are the options?

  • We have already mentioned performance management and capability disciplinaries leading to dismissals.
  • Redundancy is another option, but with an older worker who has been with the business for 20+ years, this can be expensive.
  • Another way to have a discussion with an older worker about their retirement plans is to have a without prejudice, protected conversation. If you go down this route, it will probably – although not always – result in a settlement agreement and a payment equal to or in excess of redundancy.
  • An alternative might be through a medical process. You would need to have a conversation with the employee and get permission to write to their GP. You would then hopefully receive a report from the GP that supported your concerns about the employee in the workplace. However, a GP is unlikely to tell the employee to retire and may make suggestions such as cutting down on hours or changing to lighter duties.


A great time to start a discussion about retirement might be as part of a goals and aspirations discussion as part of the appraisal process.

Asking all employees on an annual basis where they see themselves in 1, 3 and 5 years time can be very powerful. It enables you to support growth of your up and coming talent and it can facilitate a conversation about retirement with your older workers.

As a business owner, being able to gain an insight into the heads of your employees, understand what drives them and what you need to do to develop (or exit) staff is essential for the long-term health of your business.

As with many things in HR, there is no single golden solution, there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach. The route that you choose to go down will depend on you, your business culture, the employee concerned, your relationship with them and in some cases, your approach to risk.

There is no age-related need for an employee to retire; you can’t make them retire and any botched attempt to do so has the potential to end at the Employment Tribunal.

Extreme care should be taken and expert support sought at the earliest stages, before a friendly conversation is used against you.

Is this an issue that’s affecting your business at the moment?  If you’d benefit from a brief telephone call about it, give us a call now on 01923 504100 or hit reply and let us have your thoughts.

Should the law be telling business owners what to do?

04 Mar
by Donna Obstfeld, posted in Blog   |  No Comments

Cake and Eat itOn losing a case at the High Court in February, Charlie Mullins of Pimlico Plumbers used a phrase which completely sums up the modern work place:
“He wanted to have his cake AND eat it”! He used the term after one of his ‘staff’ won a case for worker rights and was therefore able to benefit from sick pay, despite being a self-employed contractor for the previous 6 years.

I often use an analogy to a duck – “If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and waddles like a duck, then it is a duck, regardless of whether you (the employer) or they (the individual) call it a chicken, a hen or a goose!”

However, although the law appears to have been clarified further by this ruling (and other rulings involving Uber and Addison Lee amongst others), there is a vital missing ingredient.

The employment laws which exist in the UK today are archaic! In many cases they are no longer fit for purpose. They are a noose around the necks of employers and they often require employees to work in ways they don’t want to.

Many, but not all of the employment laws have come from the EU as directives, but take a look at the application of those laws across the different EU countries and they bear absolutely no resemblances to each other. Like many legal frameworks, case law has continued to shape the application of the original laws to an extent that original intent is no longer recognisable – we have fences around fences and interpretation on interpretation that leaves today’s employers struggling to employ, manage and / or remove employees (of all statuses) from the workforce.

Young peopleWhile there is still a need to protect the most vulnerable in our workforce from rogue employers, young people entering the workforce today have different skills, needs and values from those still in the workforce at the upper end of the age scale. Employee Management is no longer the ‘one size fits all’, which employment law is still trying to shoehorn us into.

Different industries have different requirements and what is right for a mini-cab company is not necessarily right for a security company or a retailer, a digital agency or an accountancy practice. Equally what is right for a public sector organisation such as a County Council, is not right for an owner managed marketing agency with 2 members of staff. And yet – the same employment laws apply, the same disciplinary and grievance requirements and the same penalties when things go wrong.

Entrepreneurs who set up and run their own businesses need a framework which is fit for purpose. They need to be able to hire the right people, train them and if they are no good, terminate their employment. Presenteeism is not acceptable when employers have a business to run and if their staff can’t do the job, they need to be able to fire them without the risk of an employment tribunal.

The use of alternative employment structures such as umbrella payrolls, the use of contractors and freelancers and the use of zero hours contracts are all highly controversial with Government and the trade unions, but removing all the flexibility which these vehicles provide to today’s workforce and employers is completely counter intuitive.

Progress in society always comes from people who challenge the status quo. Where there is a better model, improved technology, a more suitable path and an alternative reality, change occurs to meet the needs to society and what was once disruptive and unacceptable becomes the norm. Examples are as extreme as the black vote in America and women entering the workplace in the UK.

Progress is essential and inevitable and as such, employment legislation needs to keep up with the changes to enable business owners to run their businesses for a profit, employ more staff in the most appropriate way, pay more in salary and taxes and provide the products and services society needs and wants.

For the law to dictate that zero hour contracts are not appropriate when some employees want to work flexibly to fit in with their family lives and other commitments is a move towards a nanny state.

For the law to dictate that contractors and freelancers are actually employees and entitled to employee rights will in some cases mean that businesses have to stop trading and all those individuals lose their jobs. In these instances, products and services are no longer available. Alternatively, someone else comes along and finds a way to do it differently, perhaps unregulated, illegally or charging more which consumers or the Government are then forced to pay.

Don’t get me wrong – there are times when people shouldn’t be on zero hour contracts or shouldn’t be contractors, but enabling businesses and their workers to be flexible is an essential criteria for today’s modern workplace and the future society in which we will be living.

If an employer and an individual agree on a way of working together which is acceptable to I agreethem both, there is a contract in place (either for employment or services) and they are paying their taxes in line with HMRC guidelines, then why is the tribunal court system even getting involved. In the case of Pimlico Plumbers, the individual’s circumstances changed and while that is regrettable, it should not be to the detriment of the business.

If an individual is working on a self-employed basis, they should be genuinely self-employed and that means taking responsibility for their working hours, taxes, insurance, health, safety and welfare.

Individuals should not have more rights than business owners and they should not be able to have their cake and eat it!

UK Employment Law is no longer fit for purpose!!!

25 Feb
by Donna Obstfeld, posted in Brexit, employee rights, Employment Legislation, HR, Human Resources   |  No Comments
Donna Obstfeld (FCIPD), HR Specialist / Managing Director

Donna Obstfeld (FCIPD), HR Specialist / Managing Director

I’ve been in Human Resources (HR) for over 20 years. When I was first introduced to the discipline, it was known as Personnel and today when I am speaking with clients, I refer to it as ‘managing employees’ or ‘staff management’. Why give a fancy name to what business owners just need to be able to do to run their business effectively?

10 years ago I set up my own business. I didn’t have a clue what I was going to do with it or what it could become, but it was mine. I knew I didn’t want to be an interim HR Manager for large businesses, I wanted to help small businesses to grow and through their staff, achieve greater success. Over time my own business grew and like so many of my clients I had to take the decision whether to take on staff. This was an absolutely terrifying decision. Could I generate enough income for two of us? Would my clients trust someone else with their ‘HR’? How do I transfer my approach to managing employees (which is very different) to my team?

Fortunately, being in the profession, I knew how to do the people things ‘right’. How to hire, how to induct, contract of employment, how to monitor performance etc. But I was still scared. However, I had a safety net – the ‘zero hour contract’. I could guess how much time I would need the staff for and if there wasn’t enough work, they didn’t work. For one member of staff, if the work in a day dried up or she was waiting for 5 different people to come back to her and couldn’t’ move on, she would take a break for 3-4 hours and come back on later in the day. It suited my staff and it suited me and my business. It meant I could hire a number of people with different skills and deploy them as the business needed. They were employees, so bound by our policies and procedures, invested in – in terms of training and coaching, and supported with their personal development, but able to collect kids from school, take holidays or meet friends for lunch as they wanted. As a small business owner this was the flexibility I needed.

As time has gone on, my business model has changed, we have expanded and the inflow of work is more sustained, being able to pay staff at the end of each month is less scary and I know I have staff to deliver client work as needed, but I still have concerns and I believe that all small business owners feel the same:
• What happens if someone decides to take a hit at the business?
• What happens if someone thinks they have been treated unfairly?
• What happens if someone resigns and fails to work their notice period?
• What happens if someone leaves and takes your clients with them?
• What happens if someone leaves and takes your staff with them?

These are realities for almost all of my clients and some have had to shut up shop as a result!!!

Contracts of employment are great because, if written properly, they set out certain rules, policies and procedures which employers and employees commit to when signing the contract. However, as I warn many of my clients, they are not worth the paper they are written on unless you are prepared to enforce them.

Let me describe a scenario at this point –based on a real client: A firm of gardeners. Employees were provided with tools and a van. Employer came in one Monday morning to find the van unlocked in the yard with a note from the employee saying “I quit”. No notice provided. The employer then has to cancel and reschedule work at very short notice.

If the employee had been fired, the employer would have had to pay 1 months notice or the employee could take him to the employment tribunal for failing to do so. However, in this instance it is the employee who has breached his contract and not given the required notice, but what options has the employer got – in reality, none!

The situation gets worse – Over the next few weeks the business owner starts to receive cancellations from clients no longer wishing to have their gardens maintained by the company. No one would say why, but a pattern emerged. They were all clients who had been serviced by the former employee. Not only had he left with no notice, he was now poaching clients as well.

What options has the employer got? Well he could try to take out an injunction, but if the IMG_0275clients choose to leave, that is their right. They can purchase their gardening services from whomever they wish! Same gardener, same services but cheaper… why wouldn’t you?

So the business owner is left feeling ‘had’. The contract of employment, although legally binding, costs too much in time and effort to enforce. So is there another way?

I believe there is, but it requires a change in the law. Theresa May’s 10 point plan for the post-Brexit UK economy ‘supporting businesses to start and grow’ is one of her main objectives for Government intervention. This points towards the entrepreneurs, the micro and small business owners, those which account for 99.3% of private businesses in the UK and employ over 15.7million people.

With Brexit around the corner and a once in a generation opportunity to create our own laws as we come out of Europe, this is the time to really look at our employment legislation and to balance the needs of employers and their businesses with the protections required for employees.

Frances O’Grady of the TUC together with other Trade Unions and their officials claim that the fees that an employee has to pay in order to take their employer to an employment tribunal are unfair and prohibitive and should be scrapped. There is a consultation taking place at the moment on this very subject and while the whole subject of employment tribunal fees is under review, I ask the question “is the system of employment tribunals even fit for purpose?”

Another scenario for you: A customer service call centre with a sales team of 2. Both employees are new and being trained. Both have contracts and are on a 6 month probation period. One of the employees is really struggling. Extra help is bought in to support her, extra supervisions are provided and weekly meetings are being held. It emerges that the employee is spending about 3 hours a day surfing the internet. At 3 months she is given a performance review and told she is not at the required standard, reminded that she is on a probation period and that she needs to start making some profitable sales. At 5 months she announces she is pregnant. A week short of her 6 month end of probation, there is a review meeting in which she is told that as she has failed to improve, failed to take on board the training she has been provided with, is still spending too much time on her phone surfing the internet, her employment is being terminated by reason of failing her probation.

It is stressed, that she is not being fired for being pregnant (there are plenty of other workers who have been pregnant, had babies and returned to this workplace), but because she is just not capable of doing the job for which she has been employed.

IMG_0277A week later ACAS contacts the employer to advise them that the employee is taking a case against them. It eventually emerges that the employee wants £28k and is threatening a sex discrimination case on the grounds that she is pregnant.

The employer does not want to settle as they have done nothing wrong, but they now have two choices, settle and pay something or fight it and incur a lot of time money and stress with no guarantee of the outcome. ACAS makes no attempt to resolve the issue, they purely act as a go between for what should be 4 weeks, could be 6 weeks or could be less if the other side play stupid games. At the end of this period the ACAS system automatically issues a certificate saying that conciliation has failed and the employee can now take the employer to the employment tribunal. Until this point, the employee has not had to pay any money, but if the employer refuses to pay a settlement they are now likely to end up in the employment tribunal.

The TUC claims that Employment Tribunal claims have dropped since the introduction of the fees and yes they have, but not for the reasons that the TUC and others would have us believe. The figures have dropped because employers want to get on with running and managing their businesses. Business owners do not have the time, money or energy to fight with the risk of losing, with the costs of solicitors to defend the case or with the time wasted in preparing for an employment tribunal just because an ex-employee has decided to take a chance.

They are after a settlement. Their solicitors often don’t want a settlement as they earn more from defending a claim in the Employment Tribunal, but the employee wants a quick pay-out and I frequently come across people who have already taken one employer to the tribunal (or threatened to). Employers end up paying at the ACAS stage to make the employee’s claim go away, to know what the financial impact is as a fixed amount and to enable them to move on and focus on their business.

There are lots of different systems across the world and while I recognise that some are better than others, if this government is serious about enabling small businesses to grow and succeed, the noose has to be removed from around their neck and the laws need to be equalised between employer and employee.

Donna Talks HR with Nigel Botterill of The Entrepreneur’s Circle

19 Feb
by Donna Obstfeld, posted in Blog, Podcast   |  No Comments

Trusted supplierAs an Entrepreneur’s Circle Trusted supplier, DOHR Managing Director, Donna Obstfeld joined Nigel Botterill of The Entrepreneur’s Circle to talk about the seven stages of an employee’s life cycle.


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