Lessons for HR from the dishing out of fixed penalty notices in Downing Street and the decline of the interview suit are two of the issues that have given pause for thought at Personnel Today this week
It’s bound to be awkward when you make the rules, announce the rules, encourage the police to enforce the rules, applaud the prosecution of those who ignore the rules – then flagrantly break the rules, while claiming ignorance.
Clearly, leading figures within the government don’t feel certain laws apply to them despite their key role in formulating them. One senior HR professional this week reminds us that, unlike these senior figures, us mere mortals in thrall to HR very much remain beholden to “the rules”.
Donald MacKinnon, group legal director at employment law and HR support firm WorkNest, has informed us that the issuing of fixed penalty notices to Boris Johnson, Carrie Johnson, Rishi Sunak and various civil servants or advisers over their appearance at parties during lockdown, raises questions for HR and business leaders about how should they handle similar misconduct situations in the workplace.
MacKinnon asks how does one fairly investigate a matter when employees, and possibly senior leaders, may argue that they weren’t breaking any workplace or criminal laws or argue that their misconduct was unintentional?
He says: “Where allegations of misconduct at work are raised, a key part of any subsequent process is to carry out a thorough investigation before taking action against those involved. This may involve interviewing witnesses and gathering any documents that assist in the investigation.” Right, so this is the Sue Gray and Met Police bit. All good so far.
“With the Met confirming that 50 fines have been issued so far in relation to events that took place across Whitehall during lockdown, they clearly came to a conclusion that some people, they believe, broke rules intentionally.”
Yep, no doubt about that, but let’s not forget, the “employees” didn’t make the rules.
“In a workplace situation such as ‘Partygate’,” says MacKinnon, “the employee would put forward an explanation or defence. The employer may then have to consider how clear that rule was, how the rule was communicated to the employee and whether it is reasonable to conclude that the employee perhaps did not understand the rule fully.
Senior figures like the Prime Minister and the chancellor are in trickier positions than junior staff members” – Donald MacKinnon, WorkNest
“The question will then arise as to whether the actions amount to gross misconduct, potentially invoking a summary dismissal, or whether there are mitigating factors that would point to a lesser sanction.”
Well, we all remember that spokesperson Allegra Stratton resigned for joking about the parties, although she may not have actually attended any. That is a remarkably noble course of action for an employee, Personnel Today would suggest.
MacKinnon continues: “Generally, committing a criminal act in the course of one’s employment, would likely result in summary dismissal.”
This is surely where the “lessons for HR” run out of juice. Not so, says MacKinnon: “Senior figures like the Prime Minister and the chancellor are in trickier positions than junior staff members. These are figures who would have had the authority to prevent the alleged party taking place. Even if those senior managers were not at the gathering itself, or only attended briefly, by condoning or turning a blind eye to proceedings, they have damaged the reputation of the organisation, the government in this case, and that may suffice to result in a dismissal.”
What form this “dismissal” would take though is open to interpretation. Unlike ordinary employees it appears that senior leaders can avoid dismissal by claiming they are too important and that there’s a war on, somewhere. Personnel Today would also like to ask what the ramifications are for HR of employees continuously watching “senior leaders” get away with wrongdoing. How hard could it become to enforce rules?
Suits you sir
Talking of rules, that unspoken edict that men must wear a suit to a job interview is wearing a bit thin, apparently, with a significant proportion of interviewers saying they think less of a candidate wearing a suit.
According to recruiter Randstad UK one in nine interviewers no longer want to see suits at interviews.
In a survey of 1,021 employers in the UK, almost three-quarters (74%) said wearing a suit for an interview was still acceptable – note the word “acceptable”, not “preferred”. But one in nine (11%) said wearing a suit would count against a candidate.
Victoria Short, CEO of Randstad UK, says: “Overly smart is now considered fusty. Stuffy. A little too Prince Charles… Interviews – even for desk jobs – are merely reflecting reality. The rise of dress-down tech entrepreneurs has undermined the suit’s position as a signifier of success. And plenty of interviewers, especially in sectors like tech and engineering, are looking for people with EQ – not people who get off on power suits and shoulder-padded swagger.”
The shift away from formal wear has been much accelerated by the pandemic with moths having a field day on the unworn garments hanging in the nation’s wardrobes.
Short advises going for the “the broken suit” look – ie, chinos and a shirt. “Smart separates are the way forward. And if you’re worried about what to wear to an interview, ask.”
But don’t worry, there’s no need to dress like Alan Partridge: last year the recruiter revealed 28% of Brits wanted to ditch smart casual – let alone a formal office dress code – once they returned to the office. As it happens, many still haven’t.