Top employment law issues

FROM social media to changing contracts, here are the most common employment law issues facing practices today.

Long-term absence

Dealing with long-term absence requires balancing the employee’s health needs with the needs of the practice. Longer-term absences usually relate to one specific medical issue such as recovering from an operation or stress and depression.

It is important to keep in regular contact with the employee – the timescale of this should be detailed in the practice policy. Once they have been off for around four weeks, ask permission to contact their GP for medical information or consider referring them (with their consent) to either occupational health or the new government fit-for-work schemes. This can help determine a likely date of return.

When the employee returns to work, it would be advisable to agree a return-to-work plan – this could involve working shorter hours or alternative duties and some reasonable adjustments may have to be made. If the employee is not deemed fit to work, you do not have to hold a role open indefinitely, but terminating the contract on the grounds of capability can be a long and sensitive process.

Managing performance

A good working relationship between employers and staff helps productivity and the general effectiveness of a practice. Managing performance can be a daunting task for managers, but the key is to know the facts and take a calm, professional approach.

Identify specific areas of concern and discuss these with the member of staff informally in ther first instance. Extra support and training should be provided to help the employee reach the required level expected within their role. A review period should be set and formal action can be taken if there’s no improvement.

Discipline

There are several steps to take into account when carrying out a disciplinary hearing in order to make the process fair and legal. The facts should be established and an investigation carried out along with witness statements noted if applicable.

If a disciplinary hearing is to be convened, ensure you give the employee all the information in writing prior to the hearing. The employee has the right to be accompanied at the hearing by a work colleague or trade union representative.

A hearing can result in no sanction awarded, verbal warning, first written warning, final written warning, dismissal or gross misconduct. After every formal stage, the employee has the right to appeal.

Grievance

Grievance topics can range from a staff personality clash to more serious issues such as sexual harassment. The practice manager should hold a grievance meeting with the member of staff to clearly establish the facts and to gather relevant details such as dates, times, specific examples of the unacceptable behaviour and accounts from any witnesses.

Any staff grievance must be taken seriously and dealt with promptly. Depending on the nature of the investigation, outcomes may include changes to procedures, the introduction of new policies, retraining, or a disciplinary hearing to address the misconduct.

Social media

Practices should ensure their social media policy not only covers use at work, but also tweets or posts by employees made in their own time that may impact on the workplace. We regularly receive calls from practices asking for advice on issues from how to deal with staff using smartphones during work time to Facebook posts containing derogatory comments about the practice, staff or patients.

A clear policy can help protect the practice and ensure employees understand what is expected of them.

Changing contracts

The subject of changing terms and conditions can be a contentious one. An employer may wish to vary the terms of the contract because of economic circumstances or due to a reorganisation of the practice.

Possible areas of change for an employee include pay rates, hours or days worked and duties. Like all legally binding contracts, the terms of an employment contract can only be altered if both parties agree to the changes.

If agreement cannot be reached, then one option is to impose the change upon staff. This may lead to a potential breach of contract claimor a risk that the employee raises a constructive dismissal.

Another option is to terminate the original contract, giving the proper notice, and offer the employee re-engagement under a new contract, with the revised working times. However, the termination of the old contract will be regarded as a dismissal and therefore will be open to a claim of unfair dismissal.

Flexible working

Flexible working regulations allow employees to request flexible working patterns in a manner compatible with business efficiency. Different working arrangements include flexi-time, part-time working, compressed hours and job sharing. To qualify, employees must have worked at the practice for at least 26 weeks.

Practices must consider all flexible working requests, contemplating such aspects as the benefits to the employee and the practice and weighing these against any possible adverse impact of implementing the changes.