It has been a very challenging time for businesses over the last 20 months. Returning to the workplace now brings with it the sense of uncertainty, uncomfortableness and fear – with those in the ‘vulnerable’ category particularly worried.
Dismissals during this time have been made more problematic with employees making claims against their employers, if they feel that they have been put in a position that has risked their health and safety.
Under the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974), employers are obliged to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees, as far reasonably practicable.
Under this law, the government has protected employees from unfair dismissal if they have felt their employer has not provided adequate safety processes; for example, not having social distancing guidelines or not providing PPE to protect staff.
This could also be true if that employee lives with someone who may be considered to be within the ‘high-risk’ group and they do not want to bring anything home that may put that person’s life in danger.
It is also unlawful if your employer subjects you to any other forms of mistreatment; including bullying of any kind, a pay reduction, or redundancy, if you as an employee did not return to work due to these risks.
As an example, if you worked in a public-facing role – perhaps you work as a receptionist – and your employer has not provided any protection for you, e.g. face masks, hand sanitisers, clean work space, you can refuse to attend work, until the appropriate safety procedures are put in place.
You are also protected under Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 if you leave your workplace due to imminent danger, which includes invisible dangers such as COVID.
Whilst there would seem to be pressure on employers when it comes to the subject of unfair dismissal, if done correctly, you are of course still able to dismiss an employee under the right circumstances.
Undoubtedly letting someone go will be a very difficult decision, especially during this time, as there may be many external issues that person is also facing. Some considerations to think about include:
- Being transparent – if your business will be making several members of staff redundant, communicating with your employees will help soften the blow.
- Have any meetings face-to-face – this may still be difficult in the current climate, but where possible, speak with the employee(s) in person, if this has to be via a Zoom meeting, then make sure it is kept appropriate and professional
- Be empathetic – being let go will be very upsetting and overwhelming to the individual, and this will be even more difficult in light of any other issues they may have had during the pandemic. As an employer, be compassionate and give them the space they will need to come to terms with the decision.
- Be professional – if the employee(s) go forward with making any claims for unfair dismissal, this must be dealt with professionally and with empathy.
How can SFB help you?
If you are an employer dealing with unfair dismissal claims and need support, we have a team of specialist HR advisors who can assist you with taking it forward with your employee and the appropriate steps to move forward. Please call our team on 01279 874676 and we will help you make this process as smooth as possible, with the appropriate processes in place.