Do your contracts and policies stand up to the Covid-19 test?
The coronavirus pandemic and lockdown have stress-tested employment contracts and policies, with some showing signs of strain. What should you do now to make sure your employment documentation is ready for the post-Covid future?
A host of new issues for employers has arisen out of the pandemic, from health and safety concerns, to handling furlough and unanticipated homeworking. Employment contracts and policies were not drafted with the current situation in mind, It seems likely that, as we gradually emerge from the shadow of coronavirus, it will be into a different world of work where home and flexible working is standard.
What should employers do now?
Some problems employers are facing will only require short term solutions, while others might need permanent changes to contracts and policies. Bear in mind that we may see further waves of coronavirus in the coming months which might result in another lockdown, or there could be local lockdowns or further requirements for vulnerable employees to shield. Employers should think about whether they need any of the following:
- A temporary homeworking policy dealing specifically with health and safety, information security and data privacy, supervision and management, provision of homeworking equipment or how to expense any necessary items. If employers think employees may wish to work from home much more in future, they should start considering what sort of permanent homeworking policy they may require.
- An updated health and safety policy or a return to work policy that considers relevant matters in the workplace (e.g. masks, 1m+ distancing, safety equipment, cleaning, shared spaces, one-way systems) – and also how to manage employees’ commute so as to reduce risks. A return to work policy could also deal with data privacy issues and new conditions on processing health information.
- Revision of disciplinary, grievance and performance management procedures to cater for remote working, e.g. holding meetings by video conferencing, accompaniment, conduct of investigations.
- A temporary change to sickness policies to deal with employees who are not sick but are self-isolating, quarantined after returning from abroad, or “shielding” because they are clinically extremely vulnerable. Employers may want to pay employees sick pay in these circumstances even if they’re not ill – for example, to prevent those who may be ill from coming into the workplace and infecting others. They may also wish to amend policies to deal with any notification or evidential requirements.
- Any changes to contracts of employment? Employers may wish to consider a range of new contractual provisions, such as including a right to lay off employees if work diminishes, or rights to alter working hours, the place of work, or to redeploy employees (e.g. to cover work if other employees are sick). If an employee’s place of work is changing permanently, the employer may want to renegotiate the contract.
Employers should take advice on their specific situation before attempting to make changes to contracts and policies. This can be a troublesome area and, if not handled correctly, could lead to employees claiming constructive dismissal on the basis that the employer has committed a fundamental breach of the employment contract. Remember that, even where employees agree to changes, the employer is still constrained not to exercise its contractual rights unreasonably by the term of mutual trust and confidence that is implied into every contract of employment.
Employers should also bear in mind that if their contracts and policies are regarded too unfavourably, employees may simply vote with their feet and choose to work elsewhere. On the other hand, judicious changes to employment contracts of employment could give employers valuable flexibility to operate in the emerging, post-Covid world of work.
For help and advice in these areas contact me at https://www.