How to avoid an ‘autumn of angst’ as furloughed staff return

Some might be coming back to work feeling unfairly treated or mismanaged while on the job retention scheme, says Sandra McLellan, who advises mediation and regular check-ins 

How to avoid an ‘autumn of angst’ as furloughed staff return

With the furlough scheme ending on 31 October, companies are beginning to un-furlough staff and bring them back to work. But undoubtedly not all these workers will be returning with a positive feeling about their employer. 

During the height of lockdown, organisations quickly tried to make sense of ever-changing, complex and confusing government furlough guidance, and as a result innocent errors were made by employers. Mistakes such as failing to uplift holiday and bank holiday payments, or claiming 80 per cent of wages while underpaying employees, will see many return to work feeling unfairly treated or mismanaged during furlough. But there are ways to avoid an ‘autumn of angst’ and smooth matters over with the affected employee before the issue turns into a full-blown, costly legal dispute. 


If you’re aware a mistake has been made and there’s the risk an employee could have been unfairly treated during furlough, then it’s vital to quickly acknowledge and address it as soon as it comes to light. First, ask the employee for an informal chat and use an independent third-party mediator, such as an in-house or external HR consultant whose sole objective is to seek a mutually beneficial resolution. Mediation always makes the process slightly easier and can resolve the issue much more quickly for both parties. Most of the time employees just want the opportunity to get something off their chest.  

During this conversation, ask if they would like to pursue this matter in a formal manner. Nine times out of 10 they will say no. Either way, mediation is good at resolving matters formally or informally before they escalate. 

Team huddles 

Unless an employee comes out and actually tells you what’s wrong, it’s not always going to be blindingly obvious that they’re aggrieved when they start back at work. Regular morning team huddle meetings are critical for spotting potential employee relations issues, especially in a virtual world. Whether you use Zoom, Teams or another platform, weekly catch-ups are key. Ask simple questions around each individual’s daily priorities and whether support is needed.  

These meetings can also flag any tensions within the team and allow leaders to then move into one-to-one catch-ups. These may just be a five-minute ‘how are you feeling?’ chat, or a more formal review of objectives. The key is to let your team know there’s a two-way channel of communication to share any potential issues before they get out of control.

Employee relations training 

We often think that as soon as someone is promoted to supervisor or manager they automatically have the skills and ability to navigate the entire world of people management. But great leaders are guided by knowing it’s OK not to know the answers to all employee relations matters, and never being afraid to ask questions and for support if needed. Run HR workshops and ER training so newly appointed managers, not just HR, can role play tricky ER scenarios in a comfortable, safe environment. 

Clear and simple

It’s important to ensure leaders and employees have easy access to a clear company grievance policy that is up to date with simple, practical and easy to follow steps to a robust dispute process, including the importance of the ‘informal chat’ offer first. Once a grievance is made, acknowledge it immediately. You may not know how to deal with the dispute yet or who will be dealing with it, but communication is paramount. 

Holding timely grievance meetings, reaching decisions and communicating confirmation of those decisions are all key, with employers acting consistently according to the company’s grievance policy.  

Proactive and preventative 

Ultimately, the best way to avoid employee disputes is to reduce the risk of them occurring in the first place, which means a proactive and preventative approach. There needs to be a culture where employees feel respected, valued, supported and fairly treated, especially during situations that are out of their control as experienced during the pandemic. 

Create an environment where employees are recognised for their achievements. This is more likely to give someone a renewed sense of responsibility and discretionary effort; whereas focusing just on a person’s mistakes highlights the failings of the business. If errors are made, ensure that corrective action is taken and lessons are learned, and move on. 

Rewards don’t just have to be monetary. Recognition is often a more effective motivator. This will give your team more confidence, knowing they can earn incentives and praise for various things. 

There are many ways to show your employees that the business cares about them individually. The key is to understand their individual motivators and needs and to show you treat your workforce fairly. Only then can you build a culture that respects its people, which in turn boosts engagement and motivation, and minimises the risk of disputes and conflict occurring. 

Sandra McLellan is director and founder of hr inspire