Legal

Can you impose your standards on your workforce?

23 Oct 2019 By Adam Grant

Following reports that a Sheffield firm has banned single-use plastic from its office, Adam Grant explores the possible pitfalls

Intelligent Facility Solutions has reportedly agreed to ban all single-use plastics from the office, after consultation with staff, and to make this commitment an express term of its employment contract. It is understood that failure to comply with this instruction could result in disciplinary action and, for repeat offenders, potentially terminated employment. The company and its workers are to be applauded for their commitment to the environment, but would the imposition of similar obligations pose issues for the wider UK workforce?

The idea of imposing standards of conduct within the workplace is not new. In fact, it would be rare for a business not to have written policies that outline behaviours it deems acceptable or unacceptable. Equal opportunities and anti-harassment policies are now commonplace, and in light of recent positive societal changes in attitude you would be hard pressed to find a worker or a court that would question the benefits of having such documents. However, mixing personal beliefs with work has a number of challenges.

In this particular example, the ban on single-use plastics appears to be driven by management's belief that it is bad for the environment. This view is consistent with the UK government's current approach to the issue. But there is no evidence to suggest that such a policy is essential for business needs. 

Banning workers from drinking or being under the influence of recreational drugs during working hours is eminently sensible as they can impair the ability to perform duties and potentially endanger others. However, would it be reasonable to prevent colleagues drinking after work? What about the dangers of smoking? There are laws that permit an employer to ban smoking at work and in company vehicles, but would it be reasonable to ban workers from smoking on their journeys to and from work or during their rest breaks because an employer considered it to be healthier for staff?

As a general rule, businesses need to be mindful of obligations imposed by the Equality Act 2010, in particular those regarding religion or belief discrimination. There have been a number of cases where employer and worker values have clashed, so employers need to be wary about imposing potentially divisive rules and be alive to any potential detriment or discrimination issues. 

Assuming that changes work from a legal perspective, how can they be successfully implemented? For new starters, this should, in theory, be relatively straightforward. Job offers should be made subject to an agreement to comply with the employers' standards. However, would it be wise to make any less 'mainstream' requirements clear to the applicant in the job advert and/or the formal letter of offer? 

Imposing change on an existing workforce can be difficult. Key considerations for employers include:

Business case – Is there a well-reasoned and justifiable requirement for the change?

Consent – What does the employment contract or employee handbook state about imposing change? Do you need express written consent? Do you need to provide for a certain notice period?

Consultation – Even with an express contractual right to vary, it would be risky to forego any employee discussions. To achieve worker buy-in, it is important to clearly explain the change, gather staff feedback and assess the impact and feasibility of the change. For example, would imposing a blanket ban on single-use plastics impact adversely on a worker with a medical condition? Would there be a less draconian way to bring about change; for example, bonuses for those who comply with the employer’s goals? 

Resistance – If employees resist, are you still prepared to impose change? Would you dismiss them?

It is important for employers to lead the way on social corporate responsibility, but they must always be mindful of the legal obligations owed to their workforce to ensure the changes are reasonable and implemented fairly. 

Adam Grant is an employment partner at Wedlake Bell

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