Brexit was always likely to be the story of the year. And 2017 was barely a few weeks old when prime minister Theresa May announced that the UK would leave the single market and customs union when it exits the EU stage left in 2019. EU citizens currently in the country, said the government, would be allowed to stay and there would be no tinkering with employment law – but details were scarce. Tesco started the year with an HR calamity when it offered staff free fruit and veg and health advice. The supermarket giant was slammed by employees tired of being ‘treated like three-year-olds’, but some commentators hailed the move as progressive.
Payroll errors are no respecters of size or prestige – as Debenhams discovered. The department store chain was fined £63,000 and forced to hand employees £135,000 in underpaid wages after it incorrectly calculated the number of weeks in the year for salary purposes. That put Debenhams top of the ‘name and shame’ list of employers that failed to pay the minimum wage.
When Philip Hammond took to the dispatch box in his spring budget to announce an overhaul of national insurance for the self-employed, it was (initially) big news. Contributions would rise to 10 per cent in 2018 and 11 per cent a year later, said the chancellor, in what would amount to a major shake-up of the tax regime. But the fallout lasted just seven days: under pressure from self-employed traders and contractors (not to mention his own MPs) Hammond put the plans on ice indefinitely.
People Management dubbed it #HRMegaMonth, and it didn’t disappoint. The start of April saw the launch of the apprenticeship levy – which meant employers would pay 0.5 per cent of payrolls of £3m or more in funding for apprenticeships – as well as a huge hike in the salary threshold for Tier 2 visas, the formal introduction of gender pay reporting and reformed IR35 rules governing off-payroll workers in the public sector.
As Britain got into election mode after May announced a surprise trip to the polling booth, matters of attire were reaching a head. A petition that began life in 2016 after a receptionist was sent home for not wearing high heels soon mushroomed into a parliamentary enquiry on dress codes at work. The government stopped short of new legislation on the issue, but confirmed that women can be required to wear certain items of clothing as long as men are subject to equivalent rules in the office.
Whatever your political hue, the decision to call a general election looked like the most ill-judged gamble of the year. May’s Conservatives lost their majority and were forced into an informal alliance with the DUP to maintain power. The incoming government promised to make tackling the gender pay gap and outlawing discrimination in the workplace priorities in the year ahead.
You would have got some healthy odds against the Supreme Court supporting a union’s bid to have employment tribunal fees ruled illegal. But to the amazement of the legal world, that’s just what transpired – with employees (and some employers) who have paid them since 2013 now eligible for refunds amid predictions that the number of cases brought before the courts will skyrocket. Meanwhile, the BBC was in hot water over gender pay, when it was revealed that women only made up a third of its highest earners – and highest-grossing man Chris Evans took home four times more than top woman Claudia Winkleman.
When Google engineer James Damore issued a 3,300-word memo – though diatribe would be an equally applicable term – about gender equality at the software giant, he probably had an inkling it would prove controversial. Damore said genetic differences between men and women were to blame for pay gaps and that they did not “imply sexism”. He was sacked for his trouble, but that led to an even bigger row about the right to speak freely at work. A CIPD survey found that FTSE 100 chief executives had seen their pay fall by 17 per cent in 12 months – though few had much sympathy for the high rollers, with many commentators convinced the drop would be a short-lived phenomenon.
Pressure from unions and political commentators to scrap the public sector pay cap had been mounting for months. In September, the dam finally burst as the effects of inflation on real wages prompted the government to announce a 2 per cent effective rise for police officers and a 1.7 per cent uplift for prison officers, as well as making a promise to allow more ‘flexibility’ in negotiations with other groups.
The apprenticeship levy was a story so big you’d have to have been half asleep to miss it. Even so, by October official figures were confirming that only a little over half of eligible businesses had opened accounts to bank and spend their levy funds, which meant thousands of employers were effectively turning their noses up at free money.
All year long, employment status had been a battleground – in July, the Taylor review into the topic proposed a new category of ‘dependent contractor’ to sort the muddle – as a succession of gig economy employers were defeated in the courts as their self-employed riders and drivers were classed as workers. In November, however, Deliveroo bucked the trend when the Central Arbitration Committee agreed that its riders were self-employed – leaving more questions than answers. Meanwhile, Hammond used the autumn budget to effectively extend the IR35 into the private sector, prompting fear among contractors.
Can an employer be vicariously liable for cyber leaks from a staff member? It appears so: Morrisons will likely have to compensate thousands of employees after a disgruntled internal auditor released their personal details online, and the High Court held the supermarket to account for his actions.