Weekly dilemma: Severe weather conditions

Last winter, the snow and ice caused major problems for my employees and my business. I want to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen this year. What steps can I take to minimise disruption, and what are my employees’ rights if they can’t make it to work?

Forecasting the great British weather is a no-win game, but you can still bet that at some point over the year the transport network in your region will be brought to a halt by the weather. Equally certain is that this will bring out both the best and the worst in your employees, with some struggling to get in regardless of personal discomfort or risk and others retreating back under the duvet after their first glance out of the window.

Conditions to include in a severe weather and transport disruptions policy

  • employees will use all reasonable efforts to come to work if they can;
  • employees will investigate advance alternative routes to work should the need arise;
  • employees must notify HR and/or line management if their journey will be much delayed or impossible;
  • those who try but fail to get in will be paid, but also those who do not will lose that entitlement and may face disciplinary action on top; and
  • anyone expecting to be paid for “working from home” must be as accessible by phone and email as they would be if in the office.

Things have already taken a turn for the worse, with freezing conditions and snow across the UK. But while the weather cannot be avoided, you can sometimes minimise the disruption to your business, and the employment issues arising from it, by a little prior planning.

Can you pre-book some local hotel accommodation for key staff in case of bad weather? Could you ask those who live locally to the workplace to find a bed for others whose journey might be more dislocated? Can staff take work home in case they are trapped there? Can internal or external meetings be postponed or converted to teleconferences? Could you enable remote access to your email and information systems? How much you can do is clearly heavily dependent on the nature of your business. There is little or no chance of remote working by manual staff, for example, so the question will inevitably arise as to the rights of those employees who do not make it in.

The starting point in law is that without express contractual or statutory provision (for example, in the case of sickness or maternity leave) those who do not attend work have no right to be paid. However, enforced strictly, this position has the potential to do damage to industrial relations lasting well beyond the period of actual transport disruption. Fairness suggests that an employee who does his best to get to work should be paid for it, as should the person who does make it in but is then unable to do anything useful because his colleagues have not. But what about the person who could have come in if they were prepared to put themselves out a little, or the one who “worked from home” but could not be reached by phone and comes in the next day with the rosy cheeks and fractured wrist of the once-a-year tobogganist?

There are so many possible combinations of particular weather circumstances, transport issues and home location that it would be impossible to draw up rules covering them all in anything but the most generic terms. Nonetheless, it does make sense to issue a written policy including certain basic conditions (see box above).

Bear in mind that the decision to pay some and not others is likely to be challenged. It will, therefore, be wise to keep a clear record of why some are felt to have made the necessary effort while others have not, and this decision should in any event be made only after prior discussion with the employee. In the end, most employers tend to take weather disruption on the chin as a cost of the business, like the power bill or the rent. Even if you had the time and energy to prove that a particular employee could technically have made it in if prepared to walk five miles behind a gritter or to sleep on a colleague’s floor, the ill-will which withholding pay for that day causes will generally be out of all proportion to the sums saved.

David Whincup, partner and head of employment London, Hammonds LLP

XpertHR FAQs on bad weather and transport disruption

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