Sickie selection criteria for redundancies could put employers at risk

Leading HR practitioners have delivered a stern warning to their peers that sickness absence should be low down on the list of criteria used to choose people to make redundant.

A survey of 329 senior HR managers, published today by law firm Speechly Bircham and King’s College London, found that a quarter of those making job cuts in the past year (185 firms) cited absence records as one of the key factors.

Disciplinary records and performance assessment were also important considerations, the study revealed.

But Richard Martin, employment partner at Speechly Bircham, warned that sickness absence could be caused by stress resulting from workplace bullying or harassment, so taking it into account could leave employers wide open to legal claims.

Earlier this month, engin­eering firm Arup said it would axe up to 400 staff by April. Speaking to Personnel Today about the redundancies, Stella Littlewood, group HR director, said: “It is a challenge for all companies and their leaders who are in this situation to keep at the front of their deliberations that it is roles that are made redundant and then people who are selected for redundancy.

“Sadly, all too often it is assumed that people are made redundant based on performance and that must not be the case,” she added.

Sonia Wolsey-Cooper, group HR director at insurance firm AXA, said HR must work harder to separate an individual from their job when cutting posts.

“You can consult multiple criteria like absence and disciplinary records, but these days HR must take a wider approach to redundancy,” she said.

A person’s attitude to work would provide a clearer picture, she added.

According to Personnel Today’s sister organisation, pay specialist IRS, 73% of employers expect to cut jobs in 2009. A survey of 268 organisations, out yesterday, found the same number also made job cuts last year.

Ben Willmott, senior public policy adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, advised employers to take a holistic look at individuals’ performance and attendance. “If undue weight is applied to any of the criteria, HR can get into serious trouble,” he said.

Opinion… Peter Reilly, director of HR research and consultancy at the Institute for Employment Studies

“The question of whether employers should focus on the person or the job when selecting for redundancy is clear-cut: organisations want to keep the best people. Firms certainly don’t want to play a game of musical chairs where the good staff end up without a chair and without a job. Since the 1980s, union membership has fallen and the stigma attached to redundancy has reduced, giving management more freedom.

“There is, however, pressure on employers to emphasise the job role in redundancy determination. Clearly, there are legal reasons to do so. Trade unions prefer objective criteria that don’t take into account biased views about the employee. But they also accept there is a cultural question as to what feels right to the workforce and management.”

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