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The 21st century workplace: what about the employee?

Posted: 06/02/2023

Time and time again, articles on ‘employee retention’ pop up in inboxes or on social media feeds. The topics typically include discussions or recommendations on rewards, benefits and culture and finish with an offer of policies, audits or reviews and vague suggestions on how to retain staff through career development. But what do employees really want and why do they contact employment lawyers? What are the actual issues employees have at work?

While employees seek help with a wide range of concerns in the workplace and there are many different reasons why they get in touch with employment law specialists, some themes reoccur over and over again.

These are:

Problems with managers
Many approach law firms for help dealing with problems they are having with their manager. Usually, this is a recently appointed manager who has a different style of working than their previous manager, and the employee is finding it difficult to work out what is expected of them. Often, they feel they are being ‘managed out’ or may even have had capability or performance processes commenced against them.

Problems with colleagues
Many employees have issues with other colleagues – that’s just a fact. These can include personality conflicts, working style conflicts, and outright competition. There are numerous reasons why. In other cases, they are being bullied or harassed, or someone has accused them of bullying or harassment. Sometimes it’s office politics, or they have fallen out of favour with a work team ‘clique’ and are being kept in the dark about team progress etc. In most cases, they have tried to resolve the problem informally but have been ignored, or their viewpoint and feelings are not taken seriously, or they’ve been suspended pending an investigation into their behaviour.

Personal issues
Others get in touch because a change in their life circumstances has meant the working environment has become too difficult to manage. This may be because of pregnancy, child care arrangements, physical illness or mental health issues, menopause or even a location move. Many people’s circumstances have changed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. What worked previously no longer works, and it’s taking its toll – mentally and physically. Unfortunately, we continue to live in a world where the news ‘I am pregnant’ can be received with a grin through gritted teeth, and the words ‘I am not well’ may be met with ‘what do you want me to do about it?’ As for the comment ‘I am menopausal’, this is often just ignored through either embarrassment or ignorance or both.

What have you done for me lately?

Life is complicated, more complicated for some than others. Some issues are permanent, and some have to be dealt with immediately, but most are temporary and just require time, understanding and patience to resolve.

Some employers take the view that an employee with a problem is a drain, and employee issues are to be dispensed with as quickly as possible so they can get back to their ‘day job’. They view employees with problems as a problem, demanding their time when they have better things to do and always wanting more from them. The reality is that this is your ‘day job.’ This is the reality of running a business – problems that are your responsibility to resolve.

Support, compassion and time

The prevailing theme in many conversations with employees who seek legal advice is the lack of support from employers to help them deal with and resolve their issues. Yes, well-being policies and public commitments to equality, diversity and inclusion exist. However, unfortunately, when it boils down to it, there is often little substance behind these policies and promises. In reality, employees have very few options when an informal chat hasn’t worked.

It’s a big decision to commence a grievance and, by the time a grievance is raised, matters have often already escalated to the point of no return, and an exit is the only realistic outcome available.

Managers and business owners need to step up out of their comfort zone and take some responsibility. Problems do not occur in a vacuum. They are not the making of one individual but the outcome of a multitude of factors – many of which are the employer’s responsibility to contain.

The when, what and how?

We all know that problems don’t go away if you ignore them. People don’t wake up one morning with an entirely new mindset. Issues, problems, whatever you wish to call them, need to be dealt with and should be addressed as soon as you become aware of them.

Resolving an issue may be facilitated by a ‘quiet chat’ and ‘open door’ policy but can only be addressed through genuine concern and non-judgemental and non-discriminatory attitudes.

Employers, be they managers, business owners, well-established businesses or start-ups, must ensure they are operating a 21st century work environment with all its quirks, differences of opinion, languages, identity issues, presumptions, and problems. Dig up the dinosaurs and drag them into the modern workplace, lead your team by example and train, retrain and keep training staff on best working practices such as dealing with mental health issues, flexible working, and generational differences. Be genuine, thoughtful and compassionate, and you will reap the benefits and retain staff longer. Your culture will flourish, word will get around, and people will want to work and stay at the company.

Be smart!

Whether the problem originates within the working environment or outside, it affects the employee’s ability to work, and therefore is an issue for the employer too - whether you/they want to admit it or not. Employers should look for ways to resolve the problem or, at the very least, lessen its impact. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it’s also an intelligent and commercial approach. Replacing staff is a lengthy and costly process, training staff once employed is a lengthy and costly process and getting a return from staff is a lengthy and costly process – be smart, be compassionate, and be available.

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Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP

Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP is a limited liability partnership registered in England and Wales with registered number OC311575 and is authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority under number 419867.

Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP