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David Roath | 24th April 2020

Reacting to COVID-19 as an employer – it’s not just about the law


David Roath | 24th April 2020

Reacting to COVID-19 as an employer – it’s not just about the law

I wrote another article about how employees might use this enforced lockdown as a time for reflection about their careers (and more). I also believe it’s a time where employers need to react and conduct themselves carefully and compassionately.

In my own working world, law firms are treating their staff very differently across the sector. I have heard of some firms who have furloughed the majority of the workforce quickly and others who have imposed immediate pay cuts. I think some lawyers will be disillusioned by how they’ve been treated and may be looking for a new home in due course. Stable, secure and respected law firms are likely to be attractive to these lawyers. This, of course, will apply across all industries.

This brings me to the point of this article. Employers might think that a recession is looming and that, with increased unemployment likely, employees will be happy to have any job. However, that won’t be the case. The way we react to the COVID-19 crisis will be defining for many employers.

Don’t get me wrong, employers have to react to the crisis that is before us and have to take steps to protect the viability of the business. The government have given employers some useful tools such as the furlough scheme and employers need to deploy measures necessary to support the business and its workers (and deploy them at the right time). What I am saying, however, is that employers need to act in a measured and understandable way. Furloughing staff is a good example. Some employers are furloughing staff without taking steps such as:

  • seeking to agree any reductions in pay. Some employers are just imposing cuts, forgetting (or ignoring) that this is a breach of contract and can be an unlawful deduction from wages. I accept that employees are likely to agree but employers should still be asking the question;
  • discussing the reasons for furlough and explaining how and why the employee has been chosen;
  • explaining that furlough now does not mean the employee will be first in the line for redundancy later;
  • keeping the employee feeling involved and communication lines open, e.g. through WhatsApp groups. An employee cannot carry out any work whilst on furlough but this does not mean that they should be excommunicated.

Other employers furloughing are treating employees with more dignity and respect, as well as complying with the law (which helps!).

Employers have a choice, even when under pressure. The way employers treat and manage employees is a reflection of the leadership and culture of the business and how it manages all relationships. The media has reported how some big businesses are treating their suppliers. It doesn’t give me any faith that they will treat their workers fairly.

Any employment lawyer will advise you to act lawfully, but we all know that there is a lot more to it than this. It’s an extremely tough and worrying time but you can still act in a positive and measured way. Show good leadership, be calm, be professional, be understanding, be kind and be compassionate. Employers who don’t will reap what they’ve sown later down the line. Sure, employees will return to work but your star performers may not stay with you for long. The better employees will be able to move on and move on they will.

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