This week’s letters

How can HR rely on doctors’ diagnosis on fitness to work?

When is an employee fit for work and when are they not? Answer: when the
employee decides and/or dismissal looms.

I don’t know if any of your readers have experienced this, but I am becoming
increasingly concerned (actually, very annoyed) at the ability of doctors to
change their diagnosis of a patient’s (employee’s) health in a very short space
of time – and in particular, where the employee is at risk of dismissal or has
been dismissed due to ill-health capability.

In a recent case we were informed in writing by an employee’s doctor,
(through the access to medical records route) that the employee would not be
fully fit to carry out his normal duties for up to six months. Similarly, in
the same letter, the doctor stated he would not be able to follow our normal
shift patterns (which can include six 12-hour shifts in a row) without causing
him some detriment. In other words, the employee could not cope with our shift
system/working environment.

We had supported this employee’s difficulties at work (caused by a road
traffic accident unrelated to work) for some two-and-half years, including
allowing him to work half shifts for a period.

However, when we received his doctor’s medical report in answer to specific
questions we had asked, the company took the decision to dismiss on the ground
of capability because it was not prepared to wait a further six months. There
were also issues around health and safety for him and our other employees and
our general responsibility to maintain a duty of care etc.

It should be noted that, prior to dismissal, we sought legal and further
medical advice on the interpretation of a doctor’s letter. Both sources
confirmed that our interpretation of the doctor’s letter was correct.

Imagine our surprise when the employee turned up to his appeal hearing
against dismissal a week later with another letter from the same doctor, contradicting
what he had originally written about the empl-oyee’s health. He can work
12-hour shifts straight away and we don’t have to wait six months after all.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the employee had persuaded the
doctor to change his ‘story’ to help the employee keep his job. The doctor’s
letters were a week apart. As a result of the doctor’s second letter we had to
reinstate the employee.

In my view, this case raises serious issues about the accuracy of doctors’
reports and the ability of employees to influence their doctor’s view of their
medical condition when the employee is faced with dismissal.

Apart from the costs incurred by carrying out a lengthy dismissal process
involving HR, line managers, doctors, occupational health, lawyers, union reps
and company directors, the company is now left with the difficult task of
trying integrate this employee back into the workplace. Because of the
confusion created by the employee’s own doctor, we are still unsure whether he
is fit and capable to do his job.

In essence, employees who can be a potential liability to themselves and
others in the workplace can remain employed if the employee can persuade their
doctor that their livelihood is at stake.

It begs the question as to how you manage these kind of employees in the
workplace and whether there is any point in spending the money to obtain
medical reports which, after all can be altered if the company’s interpretation
does not suit either the employee or their doctor.

This is not the first time this has happened and I doubt it will be the

Paul Robertson
HR director, Marriott

Headhunters have moved with market

Simon Howard’s article on headhunting
in The Sunday Times (Jobfile, 22 June) strikes me as based on hearsay and rumour
and I would like the chance to air my point of view through Personnel Today.

In today’s market, headhunters are being far more flexible with
their fee arrangements. It is now common to have a percentage fee rate based on
an agreed average base salary (not package as suggested in The Sunday Times
article), where the consultant derives no benefit whether the offered salary is
above or below that agreed figure, ensuring an unbiased negotiation stage to an

Additionally, Howard’s comments on the involvement of
purchasing are also way off the mark. The key to any search is to get the right
candidate for the role. If you don’t succeed in that, then the tenure of your
relationship with a client will be short. The benefit to the consultancy of a
preferred supplier list is the knowledge that you will access opportunities
across a company and will be able to build long-term, mutually beneficial
relationships – the key to future business success.

As for his comment that recruitment companies complain of not being
taken seriously, I can only surmise that his relationships are with companies
that don’t deserve to be taken seriously. Any headhunter worth his salt will be
a trusted business adviser who seeks to add value (and save a client time and
money) by providing best advice, in an area where many people think they know a
lot, but often know very little.

The article paints a rather poor picture overall of clients as
well. If the author’s view is that the client is a victim, and has no power in
the negotiation of terms and conditions, then he has again missed the point. In
the current market, the balance of power markedly favours the client. At the
end of the day, if the client doesn’t like what they are being offered, they
can go elsewhere. Making ill informed, gross generalisations about an industry
sector in a newspaper as respected as The Sunday Times, is not what readers

John Baker
Head of Practice, Macmillan Davies Hodes

Get used to it: staff consultation
is here

Your article ‘How will National Works Councils affect UK firms?’ (features,
1 July) raises a number of issues which may have led to unnecessary panic in
the run-up to implementation of the Information and Consultation Directive.

The article seemed to be designed to send HR professionals off to
their boards with proposals for employee consultation arrangements. We now have
the draft regulations, which clarify some of the issues raised.

The Government has decided to introduce a ‘trigger mechanism’
requiring 10 per cent of employees to request a consultation arrangement,
before an employer has to respond.

 The arrangements have
some similarities to those that have been in place for trade union recognition
for the past three years. Given that there were only 264 new recognition deals
in the first two years of this new legislation, there does not seem much of a
basis for employers to panic.

The term ‘National Works Councils’ may have turned out to be a
misnomer – although, as drafted, the statutory arrangements may encourage
national-level discussions. As your article says, the directive requires that
consultation must take place ‘at the relevant level of management’.

The draft regulations, however, have elected to require
consultation at the ‘undertaking’ level if voluntary agreements are not reached.
This may mean large organisations finding they have to provide information to,
and consult with, a committee of up to 25 people representing all their
employees. For many, this is one good reason for reaching a voluntary
agreement, allowing more local discussions to take place. This appears to be an
area where the Government is keen to receive further opinions.

To be effective and contribute to the success of an
organisation, consultation needs to be a business imperative rather than a
response to legislation. Just as we all now expect higher levels of customer
service than we did 20 years ago, so we do all expect higher levels of
involvement in the workplace.

The successful consultation arrangements will be part of a
strategy to engage employees and contribute to organisational success.Increased
employee involvement is here to stay.

The forthcoming European Company Statute will require companies
to have arrangements in place before registering as a ‘European company’, and
the Kingsmill and Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development discussion
documents also propose that companies will be required to outline their
approaches to consultation as part of their ‘human capital’ reporting.

The legislation will be in force, but the successful works councils
will be those that are not simply implemented ‘because we have to’, but those
that are introduced as part of a strategy to engage and motivate employees. If
you get a request from the required number of employees, you have probably
missed the point.

Ken Allison
Head of HR Consulting, Bond Pearce

Editor’s reply: We have since
run a detailed article on how, where and when you will need to properly inform
and consult with your staff, and when you need to set up a works council. See
our 22 July issue p16, or go the features section of our website:

Alienating people defeats HR

I find the views of Dixons’ David Longbottom refreshing (Off
message, 8 July). Any HR function that distances, or worse alienates, any of its
colleagues (note, I use the term ‘colleagues’ rather than ‘potential audience’)
is surely defeating the prime objectives of the HR function.

You cannot measure effectively what you do not understand, and
alienation shows a lack of understanding for colleagues’ needs.

People resources are, in my opinion, immeasurable in the
context of the ‘bottom line’. One employee might have an attendance which is
borderline, for example, but be very effective and productive. Another may
never have any time away from work, yet freewheels.

We try to apply Key Performance Indicators and the like. to
capture and confirm this, but they will not capture ‘bottom line contribution’.

We should not lose sight of a fundamental role of HR, to help
managers and supervisors achieve and maintain a competitive edge through their

Their understanding of the tools, properly applied pay,
thought-out recruitment, and disciplinary procedures, is critical.

HR professionals must surely stay close to all levels within
their organisation. Understanding real needs allows the formulation of sound
strategies, with appropriate administration.

Without this understanding, imposed strategies will be unlikely
to achieve objectives, and can be counter-productive in trying to fix things
that are not broken.

Tom England
Manager, health/safety & training, Mondi Paper

Report on work-life balances left

Your sensationalist headline ‘Industry slams work-life balance
report’ (News, 24 June and News Analysis, 1 July), is one-sided.

As expected, Ruth Lea’s report is considered and thoughtful and
attempts to balance the left wing, clich‚-ridden, claptrap peddled by Will
Hutton and his ilk.

Most professional HR people I know try to ensure the work
environment is productive and enjoyable (the two go together) and work and
‘life’ are not the separate polarised entities suggested by this ludicrous
term. As ever, there are people who jump on the bandwagon, and criticise
counter arguments with the vehemence which arises when self-interest is

Mike Haffenden
Partner, Strategic Dimensions

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