Employment news, Research perspectives

Covid 19: Lockdown and beyond – what are the employment relations risks?

Handling employment relations is a risky business at the best of times. In the context of the Covid 19 pandemic it could, literally, be a matter of life or death. We have looked at what the various expert commentators are saying and drawn up the following summary of what are probably the most significant risks.

Health, Safety and Welfare probably comes top of the list. In addition to those who were designated as key workers from the start of the lockdown, more employees who are unable to work at home are returning to their workplace. The responsibilities on the part of employers to provide a safe system of work are many, for example the maintenance of hygiene standards, and the provision of PPE. The workplace rules will be very different for many and could well lead to disciplinary issues, for example where social distancing arrangements are broken or where employees and feeling unwell but continue to work. For those continuing to work at home any failure to make reasonable adjustments could lead to disability discrimination claims. Failure to look after employees’ mental health, wherever they are working, is also a significant risk. Bereavement, financial worries, adjustment and re-adjustment to the changing work regime, concerns about travelling by public transport all need to be taken into account.

Unfair selection claims are up at the top of the list too. Whether this is selection for “furlough”, selection of who works at home and who has to come in to work, or selection for redundancy, employers will need to defend their decisions against a range of possible discrimination claims, and to make these changes via the appropriate individual and collective consultation processes.

Homeworking brings with it a range of risks. Many of these risks are familiar in the context of the workplace, but without the level of day-to-day supervision by line managers and HR support that can (sometimes) protect individuals’ well-being, such risks are enhanced. For example, how is the employee’s need to look after children and conduct home schooling accounted for? There are also at present anecdotal reports of an increase in online bullying and harassment. On the other side of the coin there is the need to manage perceived underperformance and to prevent or deal with any breaches of data protection and confidentiality, both heightened risks where homeworking is new to the employee.

Interpersonal conflict should not be underestimated. Covid 19 has had an unequal impact as different groups of employees have been affected in diverse ways depending on their job role and individual circumstances. This has the potential for negative feelings between individuals to affect the employment relationship. Insensitivity to such underlying tensions and failure to nip conflict in the bud, could lead to time consuming and formal grievances.