The past few months have been challenging for most employees – including managers involved in Human Resources. Many businesses that have been able to remain open during lock down have managed to struggle through.  Those that have only been able to reopen recently, or are yet to reopen, have had the benefit of seeing how others have implemented changes to ensure safe working practices. Do you have the appropriate policy in place?

The practicalities of planning and implementing changes in uncertain times is far from straightforward. Reviewing your policies and handbook might be the last thing on your mind. However, if you are an employer, here are ten policies that you should be checking – or introducing to make your business run as smoothly as possible and avoid distractions on the way.

1. Absence management policy

You will likely have more staff being absent through ill health than before. Although the number of infections is fluctuating, the end of the pandemic is likely to be some time away, and the risk of employee absence remains high.

With that in mind, it is worth reviewing trigger points for formal action under any absence management policy and consider whether COVID-19 related absences will be disregarded.

There have also been some recent changes to the law relating to  Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) is concerned, which your policy will need to reflect. In particular, from 13 March 2020, those that are self-isolating following government guidelines or shielding in accordance with a notification are entitled to SSP from the first day of their absence where they are unable to work. The first three days’ absence would usually be unpaid. Further, employees will only be able to obtain an “isolation note” if they are unable to work as they have been advised to self-isolate.

2. Annual leave policy

With many employees placed on furlough leave  – and around 25% still off work, holidays abroad have been cancelled and the prospect of the usual summer break became unlikely, some employees were unable to take their annual leave as planned. It is worth considering what changes, if any, you need to make to your current policy.

For example, are you able to accommodate everyone’s annual leave within the remaining holiday year? Probably not. What provisions do you have in place for allowing employees to carry over any accrued untaken leave into the next holiday year? The Government has already introduced new legislation permitting workers to carry over some of their annual leave entitlement into the following two leave years where it is not reasonably practicable for them to take it in the leave year to which it relates. It would certainly help to avoid the headache of trying to balance the deluge of holiday requests by having a clear policy in place.

3. Disciplinary policy

Reviewing or introducing a disciplinary policy may be the last thing on your mind. It is worth considering whether your policy reflects current examples of misconduct sufficiently. For example, does it deal with the business’ view on refusal to return to work where there is concern about safety and breaches of health and safety measures, including social distancing measures? Of course, social distancing is still something that we are all getting used to, and in some workplaces, it is trickier than others; however, you may want to have a clear stance on repeated unnecessary breaches.

4. Flexible working policy

It has been said by many people that the workplace will change for ever.

Employees who have been employed for at least 26 continuous weeks have the statutory right to request flexible working. In the current climate, your staff may now, more than ever, want to consider making applications as families struggle with childcare or caring responsibilities. You may already be taking a pragmatic view on such applications (including considering applications from those that wouldn’t ordinarily qualify); however, having a clear policy in place will help ensure that employees know what to expect  – and how to make the application and guide the process. Nobody wants to deal with applications that stand no chance of being accepted.

Applications could include temporarily reduced working hours, working at different times, or working at a different location (for example, working from home in whole or part). If changes are agreed to an employee’s working arrangements, make sure that it is clear whether the changes are temporary in light of the current situation or permanent. It may be that you want to restrict any alterations for a limited time to allow scope for change in the future as the situation evolves.

5. Harassment and bullying policy

Sadly, there have been reports of racial harassment related to COVID-19, in particular towards those that are perceived to be a higher risk of having the virus. Remind employees that harassment and bullying are not tolerated. It helps to have a policy which makes clear what is unacceptable behaviour and how affected staff can raise their concerns.

6. Health and safety policy

If your business has reopened, then it is likely that you have already applied your mind to ensuring that your staff can work safely, including ensuring social distancing. If you have not, then the Governments’ COVID-19 secure guidelines are a good place to start. It is important your staff know what you are doing to make the workplace as safe as possible by taking all reasonable steps to reduce any risk to their health.

Remember that if you have five or more employees, you must have a written statement on health and safety at work. You must also make sure your staff are aware of your health and safety policy, and any revisions.

It is an excellent opportunity to remind employees of the policy and their duties to protect their own safety and cooperate with you to ensure everyone’s health and safety.

7. Time off from work policies

There are many reasons why employees may need to have time off from work. In light of the current situation, those with children and caring responsibilities may need to take time off work at short notice. Nobody can predict when a school or nursery may be forced to close.

Some employees with children may be able to take up to 4 weeks unpaid parental leave each year  for each child aged under 18.

Having clear policies which set out your position and process on the possible types of leave that an employee may be able to take will make things much easier to navigate should the situation arise.

8. Travel policy

If your staff need to travel for work, you must review how they can continue to do so safely; this should form part of your health and safety risk assessment. You may need to review any separate travel policy that you have. For example, if employees are required to use public transport, in light of the Government’s current guidance on using public transport, can they use private transport instead?  If so, how will they be reimbursed? If travelling on public transport is unavoidable, then consider whether employees can travel outside peak times.

9. Whistleblowing policy

If you haven’t got one already, we recommend that you put a whistleblowing policy in place immediately. Times are difficult, and employees need to know that they can raise concerns without fear of reprimand or detriment.

10. Working from home policy

Is your working from home policy still fit for purpose? For many businesses, working from home was not an option until the Government announced that all those who could work from home should work from home. Even when we return to “normal”, more employees will likely want to work from home. Now is the time to put in place a formal policy.

It is important to note that even when your employees work from home, you continue to be liable for their welfare. Risk assessments need to be done to identify any hazards and risks in the home working environment – the physical place of work but also bear in mind working from home can be lonely, and it can take time for employees to adjust. Think about how you could mitigate any feelings of isolation, for example, by keeping in touch, considering outreach programmes, putting in place mental health champions, or a buddy system. Involve them in meetings.

Summary

In summary, now is an ideal time to review and reflect on the policies that you have in place to ensure that they reflect your current situation. If you have not got an employee handbook already, then we recommend setting some time aside to put one together. They can be a valuable tool for all.

17th September 2020

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