Taking the Headache out of Managing Employees – Part 1
DENTAL BULLETIN, ISSUE 20
If you are a practice owner, being able to make difficult decisions but still come across as a fair manager will help maintain staff morale. But how do you strike a good balance between the two? If you are too hard you will be seen as a tyrant and staff will look to leave; but if you are too soft your employees will take advantage.
Managing people is a difficult skill in whatever profession you are in. With so many different personalities to contend with and laws to abide by, it often requires a balancing act to keep employees happy and in turn productive.
When talking to practice owners we often hear the same complaints about staff, so in this two part special we will look at the most common concerns raised and how to deal with them. Part 1 deals with minor misdemeanours and repeated sickness absences and provides some guidance as to what procedures you can put in place to help you manage staff. In Part 2 we look at employee personalities; when they clash with each other and when you are up against a bad attitude. We will also touch upon ‘pre-termination negotiations’ and settlement agreements as a way of terminating employment and saving management time.
Dentists often ask how to tackle an employee who is constantly late or one who is not towing the company line. In our opinion this is one of the most difficult situations to manage because often the employee is a good worker and you don’t want to lose them. But if you fail to deal with such conduct early on you will create a greater headache for yourself in the long run, not only with the employee in question but your entire workforce.
We note that such complaints often arise when you take on an existing practice and long serving employees are reluctant to change, or an employee’s personal circumstances change and so they think you need to adapt to them. Remember there is a distinction between someone who is not able to perform their role (poor performance) and someone who refuses to perform their role (misconduct). Here we are concerned with the latter.
Ways to tackle misconduct
There are two ways you can tackle this situation; take a hard stance or try a more friendly approach.
1. Hard stance.
If you choose the hard stance, this will involve making an example out of an employee. This route will be more appropriate if there is just one main offender but their behaviour is starting to affect how the other employees act. For example, one employee is refusing to get to work for her contracted start time and other employees are commenting ‘if they can be late, why can’t I’?
To start off this process call the employee to an informal meeting and ask why they are acting the way they are. Listen to the response. At this point you can consider changes to assist the employee but if changes cannot be made you have no obligation to do so. Do not give in for an easy life! If there is no acceptable reason given, then confirm that if the conduct continues you will start formal action. If the conduct does continue begin the formal process; this will usually result in a written warning, a final written warning and will ultimately lead to dismissal.
If you are a new practice owner you may come across as ruling with an iron fist if you take this approach and it may in fact have a negative impact. However, if you are an existing practice owner, other staff may appreciate action being taken if they see someone not playing their part in the team and it is likely to win back your authority.
2. Friendly approach.
The more friendly approach, which will be more appropriate when a number of staff are not following procedures or you are new to the practice, is to hold a staff meeting and explain the reasons why you want a certain procedure followed or action taken. We would recommend asking for comments from the staff at this meeting; encouraging them to be open and honest. If the staff have worked at the practice a long time and you are introducing new procedures for patients, they actually may be best placed to confirm if such procedures will work, so listen to the feedback. If staff are still reluctant to make changes, consider if you can reach a compromise. Again do not give in just for an easy life. Explain the consequences to staff, namely formal action, if the procedures are not followed.
If you are a new practice owner, the staff are likely to warm to you if you are willing to discuss how the practice is run with them and take on board their comments. Most employees are reasonable once they understand why certain policies have been put in place and it makes them feel a part of a team if they can contribute. If any member of staff who still takes exception to change and your authority, you need to ask, do you really want them in your business?
Repeated Sickness Absences
Most employees are conscientious, and whilst some may pull the odd ‘sickie’, you may also have members of staff who regularly phone in sick. In a small business, unreliable employees can take a toll on managing workloads and staff morale.
Before discussing the days off with the employee you need to first establish how many days the employee has had off, the reasons for the absences and if there is a pattern forming, for example the sick days are always on a Monday or Friday.
Next time the employee is off, hold a return to work meeting. Highlight to the employee the information you have gathered. If there is a pattern, once the employee realises you know this it may be enough for them to consider their actions. Explain the impact it is having on the business. Give the employee a chance to respond. Subject to there being any underlying health issues, state to the employee that if an improvement is not seen over the next three to six months you will need to consider formal action.
What you may face is an employee who then improves but slips back in to their old ways. Just because the review period is over does not prevent you relying on previous absences when deciding whether to start formal action or try the informal approach again.
Whether the absences are genuine or not will determine which procedure to follow; capability or misconduct.
A good example of dishonesty
In an interesting case, Metroline West v Ajaj, a bus driver who was off sick was dismissed for gross misconduct on the grounds that he had exaggerated his injuries. The Tribunal held that the dismissal should have been on grounds of capability not conduct. However, the Employment Appeal Tribunal disagreed and held that the dismissal on grounds of misconduct was fair. It said that an employee who ‘pulls a sickie’ is dishonest and in fundamental breach of contract. Perhaps a good case to scare employees with!
We often hear of practices who offer bonuses for employees who do not take sick days. There is nothing illegal about such schemes per se, but be careful that they do not indirectly discriminate against disabled people.
A good tool to help you manage staff is an Employee Handbook. It can clearly set out what is expected of staff and what will happen if those expectations are not met. You can implement them relatively easily and are in addition to contracts of employment. Just ensure they are separate and do not form part of the contract, so that you can amend them as and when required.
If you need an Employee Handbook drafting or your current handbook reviewed to ensure it is up to date with current legislation, we can undertake this work for you. It is a relatively simple process and more cost effective than the alternative; potentially a tribunal claim being brought against you.
The guidance provided in this bulletin is a basic step by step for the simplest situations. Always remember that if you have taken on a new practice then you may have obligations under the Transfer of Undertakings Regulations, which protect employees from changes being made to their contracts. Also if an employee is off sick regularly, bear in mind this could be the result of an underlying health condition and therefore a disability. Finally, if there wasn’t enough to think about, you must ensure you do not directly or indirectly discriminate against staff when implementing new policies and procedures.
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Laura Pearce, Senior Solicitor