Councils asking staff about future plans could face discrimination claims

Councils could leave themselves open to discrimination claims if they ask employees to reveal their future plans, a legal firm has warned.

Earlier this week, Personnel Today reported how Cherwell District Council had asked staff to work less hours or take time off without pay, to limit expected job cuts.

Employees were asked to reveal their future plans and aspirations, to help the council with planning the next “two to three uncertain years” and “reduce the risk of compulsory redundancies”.

In particular, the council said it would like people planning to retire in the next three years to give it an “indication of their intentions”.

Susan Doris, associate (barrister) at law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, told Personnel Today: “If the employer takes into account the fact that someone wants to retire in the future and selects them for redundancy as a result, they could be at risk of an age discrimination claim.”

Doris also pointed out that employees might volunteer their intentions to start a family that may result in further sex discrimination claim risks.

“Employees may say I am going to start a family and the employer may face the risk of sex discrimination claims if, they treat the employees less favourably as a result, whether that be in relation to selection for redundancy or in relation to any day-to-day working decisions. This could even be a subconscious decision on the employer’s part.

“The question is how much value all of this is to the employer, given the risk of discrimination claims. The employees are not bound to stay or go simply because they have expressed an intention.”

Cherwell’s move to shorter working weeks was largely welcomed by HR industry experts, who described it as “brave and innovative”.

Joan Seaton, head of employment relations at Local Government Employers, said it was highly likely the next round of public spending will have huge expectations on local authorities to find even further efficiencies.

“Councils are looking at ways of protecting their front-line services and other services to the community. It is good to see them actively seeking the preferences and career plans of their staff when shaping their business plans. Not only may it help protect jobs, but it could also maintain morale during any future change.”

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