Why do HR need to plan beyond their written employment policies?

Written on 4 Jun 2015

Many employers have a suite of employment policies in place. Increasingly these seek to deal with every potential twist and turn a matter may take. Supporting these policies are training and carefully timed reminders to staff and line managers of the behaviours expected of them. However, recent stories highlight that no policy will ever be able to cater for every eventuality. Whilst there is a place for policies and procedures, employers must plan beyond these to limit the damage to their business when staff are unwilling to play ball or perhaps simply do not think.

So what are these recent stories?

Our first story is the well-publicised Fifa debacle. As reported in yesterday’s Financial Times (see here), the US authorities had reportedly given American soccer chief Chuck Blazer “a recording device hidden in a key chain so that his colleagues could incriminate themselves”. As the FT report alludes to, employers need to be prepared these days for far more sophisticated devices to be used for surreptitious recordings. And aside from the legal niceties of what standing these records have in any tribunal proceedings, what is clear from experience is that such recordings will certainly muddy the waters, creating an unwanted additional hurdle for any employer to deal with. The damage a covert recording can cause is potentially disastrous in seeking to resolve a dispute. And where an employee is still employed – what happens to trust and confidence?

Second we have the BBC journalist who yesterday reportedly tweeted to the world, incorrectly, that the Queen had died (see here). Before she could hit delete the tweets had already been retweeted and picked up by other news channels. Reports are that one US news channel called Buckingham Palace to check out the story. The offending tweet was apparently in fact sent in light of a regular rehearsal for a royal death and was despite a reported email to staff confirming “This morning we are carrying out a low key rehearsal for the way in which television might cover a Category One obituary. It’s mainly a technical procedure looking at the use of the studio”. And which went on to explain the practical steps that had been taken to keep the rehearsal private, including the suspension of public tours and dropping of blinds. Indeed, the email confirmed “I’d also ask for your help in refraining from any external conversations and all social media activity about this exercise. Your continued discretion will be greatly appreciated”. Surely, aside from any social media policy, this should have been sufficient to ensure that the rehearsal was kept within the BBC?

So what can we learn and what should employers do?

The message is simple. Employers must not rest on their laurels and their seemingly comprehensive suite of policies and procedures. Whilst they may seem to cater for every situation, they will not stop an employee doing something they are determined to do or that spur of the moment unthinking action. A policy may help cater for how a particular employee is dealt with, such as disciplinary action for breaching rules on conduct at meetings or use of social media and bringing the company into disrepute. But that policy will never be able to cater for the wider repercussions of an employee’s actions in the social media world in which we live. What these stories show is that businesses must ensure their various departments work together and continue to think outside their written rules.

  • Have you thought who is responsible for dealing with that erroneous tweet? What procedure will you follow? Is someone trained to deal with any subsequent negative media attention?
  • How can you minimise the risk of covert recordings – how easy is it in this technological age for an employee to find out where you are meeting?
  • Line managers are regularly trained on spotting issues, dealing with poor performance, holding a disciplinary hearing or listening to a grievance from an employee. But do they know at what point their deliberations cross the line and become personal comments which, if the employee has managed to record them, may well make it through the door of the tribunal? Do your managers have the confidence to shut down such discussions?
  • Is there a culture of informal sniping and accusations which needs to be stamped on?

These are just some thoughts on what employers need to ensure they are thinking about. It is easy to get caught up in the rigidity of policies and procedures and the protection they appear to offer. However, practically, they will never always be enough.