Getting the most from workers without encouraging exploitation

The recent death of an intern has shone a spotlight on how companies are treating their younger workers. Karen Plumbley-Jones looks at the steps employers can take to make sure they are supporting the work-life balance of their 16- to 24-year-old employees.

With more than one million 16- to 24-year-olds in the UK not in education, employment or training, there is pressure on young workers to accept jobs with low pay and long hours. Those in higher-paid jobs may feel they have to work long hours to impress their employer.

The recent death of a 21-year-old intern at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, who had allegedly worked for 72 hours without sleep before his death, has highlighted this issue.

How can employers get the most from their workforce, while at the same time ensuring that their company’s policies are designed to avoid exploitation?

Current laws

The UK Working Time Regulations set out the law as it applies to working hours, night work, rest breaks and holidays. They implement the EU Working Time Directive and the relevant provisions of the Young Workers Directive. Sanctions for a breach of the Regulations include fines, improvement or prohibition notices and compensation for workers in employment tribunals.

Getting the most from your workforce

The culture of your organisation must be open and supportive, and staff should be rewarded for results achieved rather than hours worked. Employees should be managed fairly and your company should comply with its own policies and procedures and with Acas codes of practice and guidance.

Employers must pay at least the national minimum wage, which increased on 1 October and is now £6.31 per hour for those aged over 21; £5.03 per hour for those aged between 18 and 20; and £3.72 per hour for those aged between 16 and 17. The apprentice minimum rate is £2.68 per hour.

Employers should, however, consider paying the living wage instead, which is based on the amount an individual needs to earn to cover the basic costs of living – this currently stands at £8.55 per hour in London and £7.45 per hour everywhere else.

In September 2013, Acas published a joint research paper with the Institute for Employment Studies on young people’s views and experiences on entering the workplace, which said that employers should:

  • offer clear guidance and information to young people as early as possible so they know what to expect;
  • ensure appropriate support, such as induction and a buddy or mentor;
  • establish clear lines of authority to avoid any confusion;
  • put in place ongoing feedback, guidance and assessment so young people know how well they are doing;
  • try to involve young people fully in projects to increase their sense of engagement;
  • establish clear channels for resolving issues to ensure that any concerns are raised; and
  • ensure communication reaches all parts of the organisation so that young people feel included.

Changing working cultures and encouraging a work-life balance

The culture of an organisation is set at the top, which means that any change must be supported and demonstrated by the senior management team so that it becomes part of the organisation’s DNA.

There are many advantages for employers who succeed in encouraging a work-life balance: staff are more likely to be engaged, leading to higher productivity; employees will be more loyal, resulting in lower staff turnover and reduced recruitment costs; they are also less likely to take sick leave and likely to return from sick leave more quickly.

When it comes to winning the war for talent, remuneration is not usually the main factor – individuals are more likely to join an organisation if it promotes flexibility and a good work-life balance. Employees should be encouraged to take the leave they are entitled to, whether under the Regulations or for family reasons – including maternity, paternity, adoption and parental leave, and time off for dependants.

In addition, employers should take a sympathetic approach to requests to work flexibly by those with caring responsibilities. Such employees can request a change in their number of hours, times of work or place of work, and employers should start from the assumption that requests will be granted unless there is a good reason not to do so.

The Government is implementing various policies that will improve work-life balance. In the next couple of years, we will see the extension of flexible working to all employees, a new system of shared parental leave between mothers and fathers and time off for fathers to attend antenatal appointments.

Forward-looking employers should already be considering how to implement these changes in their organisations.

Karen Plumbley-Jones

About Karen Plumbley-Jones

Karen Plumbley-Jones is a practice development lawyer specialising in employment at law firm Bond Dickinson LLP.

One Response to Getting the most from workers without encouraging exploitation

  1. Lorraine Everett 12 Nov 2013 at 10:21 pm #

    Thank you Karen for this article. I have two points.

    1. I work with many great companies and I find that changing working cultures is a real struggle for the senior and mid level managers. Often they fail to lead by example by saying they want there teams to have a work life balance and then they work long hours themselves. This mixed message, do what I say not what I do will not change the DNA.

    2. Work life balance itself really needs to be defined it is not just about the hours you work it is the fulfilment you achieve at home and at work. Often the phrase is banded about until it becomes meaningless.