Monthly Archives: February 2011

Don’t let compliance lock you down

Is your way of dealing with employment law to look at compliance and do that?   A lot of organisations do just that.   If minimum wages go up, pay goes up.  If statutory holiday goes up, holidays go up.   If maternity leave goes up, that goes up.  You get the picture.

This approach to employment law tends to go with a defensive model of HR.  The processes in the business are ‘locked down’ – often by HR – to prevent ‘mistakes’ or ‘employment tribunals’.     The whole focus of how employees are dealt with is on process compliance.   A lot of insurance based schemes effectively require it.  This has an effect on the organisation – locking it down to processes and timescales that make it hard to keep agile.    

Like a Sumo wrestler, the organisation ‘wins’ by keeping their weight low, making it hard to shift things and staying in the circle.  Sumo wrestlers who are pushed out of their circle lose their match!.   Attacking Sumo wrestlers stay low and use their weight and momentum to knock their opponent out of the circle.  

Is that what someone accessing your grievance procedure is experiencing?  Do people have to ‘hack your sytems’ to get anything done?

This model has its merits in organisations that don’t need to change very quickly, or need to negotiate every detail of their change with Unions or multi-tier boards.   As long as the organisation remains stable, it can work, but anyone who tries to wrestle the Sumo champion will find themselves outside the circle in another job!

Smaller organisations and more entreprenurial
organisations prefer to stay agile  and want to be free
of ‘process’.  Flexibility is a big thing for organisations
that are trying to grow fast and respond to their market.   

They can turn on a spot, and there is nothing they can’t do.  Their approach to employment law is not based on any kind of coherent decision.  They might be generous about one thing, under the legal minima about another, but they handle things as they go.  Of course, not everyone has the skills or the training to be that balanced or that flexible.   This can work if the organisation devotes a lot of time to training, communication and embodying their values, but it can degenerate into something where the people who are not emotional or intellectual gymnasts get hurt.    A lot of organisations appoint their first internal HR person when someone falls over and they or the organisation gets hurt.   There is a temptation to ‘do a Sumo’ on the entrepreneurial gymnasts.  The experienced HR practitioner will miss having systems and processes in place.  The temptation is to import the systems that existed where you were before.   Unless you figure out where the organisation really wants to be on employment law, you will soon be the corporate ‘No’ person.  The one who says, “Employment law says you can’t…..”

Organisations need to be able to adapt and respond to change.  Employment law is part of a bigger mix of ingredients, and should not be allowed to dominate the organisation’s thinking about people, any more than consumer law should make you refuse to sell a product (unless it is dangerous of course).  Most people are neither Sumo wrestlers or gymnasts.   They need to know fundamentals in order to perform their role, but they don’t usually want to be rooted to the ground or a high wire act!.    Employment law is not about demonising or criminalising behaviour (though some off the graph behaviour does belong in that category).  It is about setting codes and signals that let people know what is expected of them, when they are able to move freely and make their own decisions, and what fundamental rules  exist that really are not to be broken.

On the social dance floor, ordinary people can do great things, cooperating with their immediate partner and within a group.   They do this because they learn the fundamentals of the dance and the codes of the dance floor.

Social dancers are not show dancers, they are not athletes but people working and playing in co-operation (and sometimes competition) with a group.   Too many rules and the dancers melt away to dance somewhere else.  Too few and the egoists take over the dancefloor and destroy the flow.

Employment law is a powerful tool in the workplace.  Like the codes of the tango dancefloor it can be used to help the flow of work and relationships.   Our strength in the UK is our ability to make contracts that reflect our own organisational priorities.   We can choose to Sumo, do gymnastics, dance tango, or anything else and embody that into our contracts and handbooks.

And in the interests of equality, everyone can dance – here is a picture of a wonderful ‘disabled’ dancer.

The question I want to ask you today is:

Do your contracts and handbooks speak with the right voice for your organisation and set the fundamentals and codes you need for success? 

Annabel Kaye is Managing Director of Irenicon Ltd, a specialist employment law consultancy. Tel: 08452 303050 Fax: 08452 303060
Website :     You can follow Annabel on twitter


Filed under contract, employment law, employment tribunal, free stuff,