Coronavirus conflict at work

 

advo hr’s Alison Gill addresses the conflict that COVID brings to the workplace and how to address the differing employee views and concerns.

“Black Wednesday in 1992 saw interest rates to 15% and the great recession of 2008 which took the UK economy five years to get back to the size it was before the recession were extremely challenging times. However, in over 25 years working in HR in a number of different industries, none of us have lived or worked through a year like 2020, but 2021 has now been labelled a year of hope and recovery!

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has now been approved for use in the UK and together with the Pfizer-BioNTech jab, there are now said to be sufficient vaccines to cover the entire population.

Despite the promising news about the vaccine and a potential, eventual return to some kind of normality, and working as an HR professional, alongside many businesses, there continue to be a myriad of employee related issues to manage as we enter the New Year.

As we know, mental health issues continue to rise and both employers and employees remain anxious about the future.

Employees may also hold very strong views about the way they feel that the behaviour and actions displayed by their colleagues may affect the spread of the virus. For example, they may be aware that others haven’t complied with the guidance regarding household mixing over the festive period or are not complying with received track and trace alerts to self-isolate.

Some employees may voice a view that they do not wish to have the vaccine and others may feel that this is an irresponsible viewpoint, which puts others at risk.

Such differing views and approaches could cause harmful conflict and significantly affect work performance and productivity.

Together with the gloom that January often brings and the fact that businesses continue to face an uncertain future, how do employers manage any internal differences of opinions and potential conflict?

In my 25 years’ experience working in the HR, the most common complaint I have heard made by employees regarding their employment has been lack of communication. I have never once heard anyone say ‘My manager over communicates with me’. So, with regards to communication, less is never more and my advice would always be that the key to increased harmony in the workplace is to talk to your team.

If an employer hears of conflict of opinion, between employees, don’t leave it to blow over as these things tend not to disappear. They can only escalate and a number of small things can become a major complaint or grievance so the best advice would always be to nip issues in the bud. Talk to employees individually and do all you can to mediate and allow others to empathise with each other and resolve their differences.

All employers would be advised to put in place a carefully thought through internal communications strategy which recognises the employees concerns and worries that the wider group may harbour and takes a sensitive and empathetic approach.

You may already have a Health and Safety Committee or Works Committee in place or you may wish to enlist the help of key employees in your business to support a communication programme and discuss with them the type of information that employees would welcome.

As we have all learnt, information does changes and all employers will need to be prepared to adapt their plans and approach in line with new developments and it is important that everyone recognise that this is an evolving situation.

Some employees may not have taken the time to carefully listen to the advice or have missed or misunderstood information regarding continued restrictions, the spread of Coronavirus or the vaccination programme and how this may affect them and there are key points to consider in any such communication programme.

However, the primary consideration is to ensure that all employees are aware that under UK health and safety law, all employees are entitled to work in environments where risks to their health and safety are properly controlled. However, everyone should also be reminded that they also have a duty to take care of their own health and safety and that of others who may be affected by their actions at work.

It is therefore crucial that all employees are aware that Covid-19 risk assessments and safe working practices continue to be in place to control the risks associated with contracting the virus at work.

Explain to employees that the vaccine is being administered according to priority groups and even with the advancement of the vaccine programme, it is likely that we will still need to follow social distancing laws and the COVID secure working guidance for some time. Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific officer, has warned that face masks may be required until next winter.

Remind employees that they will need to be registered with a GP surgery in England in order to receive the vaccination.

Consider the fact that an instruction to take the vaccine could be regarded as a ‘reasonable instruction’ on the part of the employer, but that will depend on the circumstances. For example, employers in the social care sector may be able to issue a reasonable instruction to employees to take the vaccine because refusal could put vulnerable people at risk.

Employers in other sectors arguably do not have the same strong rationale for instructing staff to take the vaccine – for example, professional services, where it has been shown that work can be done effectively from home.

Furthermore, the NHS advises that those who are pregnant or who are breastfeeding should not have the vaccine until after the birth of the baby or until they have stopped breastfeeding. There is also advice that If a woman has the vaccine, she should not get pregnant for at least 2 months after having the 2nd dose.

Apart from specific NHS advice, there may be some employees who do not wish to take the vaccine for a number of reasons. This may be because of a medical condition that prevents them from being vaccinated, it may be for religious reasons or for reasons of philosophical belief or they may have concerns about the safety or effectiveness of the vaccination.

If an employee voices concerns, it is important that employers show empathy and take the time to gain a clear understanding of each individual scenario.  There is the potential for discrimination claims, if any employee is forced to take the vaccine or treated differently, albeit directly or indirectly, if they don’t wish to be vaccinated. If any employer is unsure of what to say or any employment legislation implications, they should always seek further professional advice, prior to taking any action.

When thinking about the future, employers should consider whether day-to-day operations are likely to be disrupted by the vaccine rollout. For example, employees may need to take time off work to get the vaccine and to recover from any side-effects. It would be reasonable for any employer to facilitate reasonable time of for their employees to be vaccinated.

Private COVID-19 vaccination is not expected during the first phase of the NHS vaccination programme and public health officials have confirmed that no government stocks will be released for private clinics. However, in time and when stock may be available for the private sector in the future, you may want to consider whether you would wish to pay for employees to be vaccinated.

With the administration of the COVID-19 vaccine, new information regarding employee’s health means that it is likely that there will be changes to the medical information an employer will hold about and it is therefore very important that all data protection policies and processes are reviewed and employees are reassured about the safety of their personal data.

Of course, and as, we have all learnt, government guidance, the vaccination programme and its impact will evolve over the course of the next few months and I would recommend that all employees are kept informed of what the business plans are on a regular basis. This can be via virtual meetings, telephone calls or newsletters.

There will undoubtedly be precedent and stated cases as an outcome of the Coronavirus pandemic. These may relate to Health & Safety, redundancy, furlough claims, holiday, discrimination, etc. and at the time of writing, it is impossible to predict what final decisions may be made. All employers should take a reasonable and fair view and all complex pieces of legislation must be handled carefully and I would always advise business leaders to seek professional HR advice prior to taking any action.”

advo hr will take the time to understand your business and we will support you step by step through any Coronavirus or any other employee related matter. email us on advohr@advogroup.co.uk to start a conversation.

 

Alison Gill is a Chartered Member of the Institute of Personnel and Development and has worked in senior positions within the HR profession for over 25 years. Her broad range of experience has been gained working both in-house for large corporations and SME’s and as an external consultant advising a myriad of businesses in a wide range of industries. Alison’s thorough and extensive knowledge of employment law enables her to bring the rule book to life and support businesses in solving complex employee relations issues.

 
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