Summer issues: checklist
Hester Briant of Lewis Silkin LLP continues a series of articles on summer issues affecting employers with a checklist for helping to ensure continued productivity during hot weather. By taking steps to control and reduce the impact of rising workplace temperatures, managing holiday requests and dealing with absenteeism, employers can go some way towards limiting the negative impact that hot weather can have on their business.
1. Consider relaxing dress codes.
If dress codes are relaxed during hot weather employees' comfort at work can be improved, which is likely to make them more productive. An announcement that the dress code is temporarily relaxed can be used to remind employees of what the organisation considers acceptable and what it considers unacceptable regardless of the climate (for example shorts or sleeveless vests). A temporary relaxation in the dress code can always be made subject to a requirement to dress formally when meeting clients and customers.
If relaxing the dress code is intended to be a temporary measure, this should be made clear at the outset, with an indication of when normal standards should be resumed. Relaxation or enforcement of the dress code should be applied in a fair and non-discriminatory manner and dress requirements should be justifiable (see Summer issues: overview in this series for more details).
Where employees wear a uniform, its suitability in hot weather, and whether or not it can be adapted, may need to be considered.
2. Ensure that cold drinks are available.
Under reg.22 of the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 (SI 1992/3004) employers must provide an adequate supply of accessible drinking water. Providing chilled water will help employees to stay cool. It is also worth supplying some alternative chilled soft drinks, to improve morale and encourage employees to drink plenty of fluids while they are at work. Reminding employees to drink plenty of fluids during hot weather and giving them adequate opportunities in which to do so should help them to avoid becoming dehydrated.
3. Take action to cool the workplace before the temperature rises.
There is no legal maximum temperature for workplaces, but employers are required to ensure that the temperature in indoor workplaces is reasonable. Checking and servicing the air conditioning system before the weather gets too hot may avoid an uncomfortable wait for an engineer in August! Where the workplace does not have air conditioning it may be necessary to supply staff with fans. Windows should also be checked to ensure that they open and blinds checked to ensure that they close.
4. Be clear about how many employees can be on holiday at a time.
Warm weather often leads to a rush of annual leave requests. It is advisable to establish and be clear about how many employees can be on annual leave at a time to avoid remaining employees becoming overloaded. A review of minimum numbers across different teams, roles or levels may be necessary. A holiday "buddy system" could be considered, in which employees of similar levels or roles are matched and asked to ensure that only one of them is on leave at a time.
Rules on holiday requests should make clear how clashing requests will be addressed. Granting holiday on a "first come, first served" basis is the norm, although all holiday requests should be subject to business needs. However, employees must be able to take their holiday entitlement under the Working Time Regulations 1998 (SI 1998/1833) in the relevant leave year.
When considering how many employees can be granted leave at a time other absences, such as training days and jury service, should also be taken into account.
5. Check that holiday booking procedures are clear.
Rules and procedures for booking and approving annual leave requests should be clear and should specify how much notice of intended leave employees must give. In the absence of any agreement to the contrary, the Working Time Regulations 1998 require employees to give notice that is at least twice the period of annual leave requested. The contract of employment or holiday policy and procedure may specify to whom employees should make holiday requests.
6. Make sure that the procedures for reporting and notifying of non-holiday absences are clear, and require employees to account for all absences.
Some employers may notice an increase in unauthorised absences during the summer, as a result of employees taking time off work to enjoy the warm weather or watch sporting events. Unanticipated absenteeism may be reduced if employees are required to account for, and report, all absences, regardless of their length. Absences should fall into the category of pre-booked annual leave or reported and certificated sickness absence, or be for a permitted reason such as family-friendly leave or qualifying time off (see the Time off work section of the XpertHR employment law manual for more details). Unless the absence falls into one of these categories it is likely to be treated as unauthorised. The procedure for reporting a current absence (such as sickness or compassionate leave) or notifying of a future absence (such as jury service) should be clear. Prior knowledge of future absences makes decisions about whether or not to grant holiday requests easier.
7. Monitor absence.
Employers that monitor absence are in a better position to establish whether or not an employee or group of employees has a particularly high level of absenteeism, which may indicate malingering or particular problems within the workplace. Having a system in place for monitoring absence, regardless of its reason, helps to identify problems so that they can be dealt with quickly.
Absence monitoring systems should flag up an unauthorised absence quickly so that it can be dealt with as and when it arises.
8. Deal with unauthorised absence quickly and follow the disciplinary procedure.
Employees who take unauthorised leave should be invited to a meeting immediately on their return to work and given the opportunity to explain the reason for the absence, on an informal basis. If an employee fails to offer a satisfactory explanation for the absence, the matter will normally become a disciplinary issue. If the employee does not return to work after a day, a letter should be sent to him or her (see Unauthorised absence letter in the XpertHR policies and documents section), seeking an explanation for the absence. If the employee does not respond the employee should be advised in writing that the matter will become a disciplinary issue.
Employees must be treated consistently, particularly with regards to the severity of the disciplinary action taken. Depending on the circumstances and the length of the absence dismissal may not necessarily be a reasonable response to a first incidence of unauthorised absence.
9. Take care when challenging the authenticity of sickness absence.
Where it is suspected that a reported sickness absence is not due to genuine ill health it is important not to jump to conclusions and accuse the employee of unauthorised absence at the outset. It can be extremely damaging to the employment relationship to accuse an employee of malingering when he or she has taken genuine sick leave.
Unless there is evidence to suggest that a particular absence is not genuine the safest course of action is to accept that it is. However, where an employee has a high level of absence or displays a particular pattern of absence (which, in the context of summer issues, could be where previous absences coincided with major sporting events), further investigation may be necessary. (See Short-term sickness absence: overview for more details on dealing with absence problems and Summer issues: case study for guidance on dealing with an unexpected absence that coincides with a major sporting event.)
If there are reasonable grounds for suspicion about the genuineness of an employee's absence (for example where he or she has revealed to colleagues that the absence was not due to sickness), the matter will become a disciplinary issue.
Next week's article will be FAQs on summer issues affecting employers and will be published on 29 June.
Hester Briant (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate at Lewis Silkin LLP.
Further information on Lewis Silkin LLP can be accessed at www.lewissilkin.com.