‘Tis the season to be jolly – and careful!

As we are approaching the Christmas season, minds will be turning to office parties, after-work drinks and other opportunities to have fun. And rightly so.

However, as an employer there are a few things that you need to be thinking about to ensure that your employees – and business – stay safe and litigation free.  The law makes no allowances for festive high spirits. Here are just some thoughts to be going on with:

Health and Safety – everyone’s favourite topic (not!). You obviously have a responsibility for the health and safety of your workers, so have you made it clear that drinking at work during working hours is a no-no and that Christmas is no exception? And what about drivers who set out early in the morning after a heavy night? People tend to do foolhardy things after a few drinks, but if they lead to injury you could have some explaining to do.

Punch-ups and harassment – parties and alcohol can result in things getting out of hand. Things get said, and done, that might have serious consequences. Even if it’s after work, and not on your premises, you could still be held responsible and therefore find yourself in Court or before an Employment Tribunal. And even if that doesn’t happen, are you ready for the morning after recriminations?

Time off – is everyone clear about what time off they can have? Do you give people a bit of Christmas Shopping time? Not just to female employees, though, eh? And what about the employee who for religious reasons doesn’t want time off – are you treating them fairly? Can they have time off to celebrate their religious festivals?

Sickness absences – are you going to take a more lenient view of the morning after the night before than you would normally?

So start planning now – you don’t have to be Scrooge to take some basic steps to protect yourself and your workers.

Recruitment – the next step


If you don’t know who you’re looking for, how will you know when you’ve found them?

In last week’s blog, I talked about the large investment that employing someone represents, how a systematic process can reduce the risk attached to that investment, and discussed the starting point for that process, the Job Description (JD). This week, I want to move to the next stage: the Person Specification, or Spec as it’s usually known. This is a key document in the recruitment process, because it sets out what qualities you’re looking for in candidates, and if you’re not clear about that, your chances of making an unsatisfactory appointment increase considerable.

As with JDs, there are lots of formats for the Spec, and you can find one that suits you or create your own. It doesn’t matter – what’s important for business and legal reasons (see below) is that the content of the Spec reflects the duties and responsibilities set out in the JD. It’s effectively your shopping list for a new employee.

What follows is my preferred format. For each quality or characteristic, I specify whether it is essential or desirable, and this distinction is really important. If you specify something as essential, what you’re saying is it’s a deal-breaker. When I cover the legal bit, it becomes clear why this is important. In general, don’t include anything in the Spec that you can’t assess in some way, whether it’s from the application, CV, interview or references.

Physical characteristics – You’ll only be concerned with this if the job has a physical component such as lifting, carrying, standing for extended periods. However, there are real sensitivities around disability discrimination, and I would suggest a catch-all phrase along the lines of “Able to carry out the duties of the post using any appropriate aids or adaptations”.

Education and Qualifications – Think about what’s essential and desirable in terms of the duties of the post. You need to think about academic qualifications, professional or trade association memberships, driving licences and so on. Don’t over-specify for a couple of reasons. Firstly, if you set the bar too high you’ll lose out on potentially perfectly appointable candidates. Secondly, you run the risk of indirectly discriminating against candidates who lack those qualifications (see The Legal Bit below).

Experience – Again, don’t over-specify, and for the same reasons. What is actually essential experience, and what can be learnt once appointed? A lot of Specs describe experience in terms of length of time, but I would advise against this. What matters is the depth and quality of experience, not the years. Some people will gain all the experience they need in two years; others might not learn anything from ten years in a job. Using time spent to assess experience is won’t give you much to go on.

Skills and Abilities – This is about what the person must or should preferably be able to do, not necessarily what they have done. So things like ‘able to manage conflicting priorities’ ‘advanced user of MS Office’ etc.

Personal Qualities – What personal qualities will go towards making a great employee for you. Team worker or happy to work alone? Formal or informal approach? Steer clear of things that are entirely subjective like ‘good sense of humour’ – unless what you mean is someone who laughs at your jokes! Obviously don’t put anything in about age, marital status, sexuality etc.

Personal circumstances – Often there’s nothing to say here, but you might need to mention unsocial hours, travelling and staying away from home, being on call-out and so on. If the employee will need to provide their own car, that goes here too.

The Legal Bit

In last week’s blog I listed the ‘protected characteristics’ against which it is unlawful to discriminate, and described how discriminatory content might appear in a JD. But it’s in the Spec where discrimination, however unintentional, can most easily creep in. A quick re-cap on two types of discrimination relevant in the recruitment process:

Direct Discrimination occurs where a person A is treated less favourably than Person B because A has one or more protected characteristics. For example “this job would be more suitable for a man” “unsuitable for a disabled person” “waitress required” “must be married”. Such obvious discrimination is, thankfully, very rare nowadays. It is almost always deliberate.

Indirect Discrimination occurs where a ‘provision, criterion or practice’ is applied to a person A who has a protected characteristic and because of that protected characteristic A is disadvantaged compared with people who don’t have that characteristic. Examples might help here! Specifying that applicants must be at least 5’ 10” tall will discriminate against women, because they are less likely to be that height. Insisting that applicants must be clean shaven will discriminate against Sikhs, who are required to wear a beard. Requiring experience that is unbroken will disadvantage women who have had maternity breaks. Some of these are obvious, but specifying a qualification that is unnecessary might be found to be discriminatory if it can be shown that people of a particular ethnic group are less likely to have it. Indirect discrimination doesn’t have to be deliberate, and in fact usually isn’t. Some years ago, London Transport required bus conductors who wanted to become inspectors to pass a written English test. Almost all of the inspectors were white, despite a significant number of conductors being Asian. It was held that the standard of English required to pass the test was higher than that required to do the job, and that the Asian conductors were at a disadvantage because their English was not up to the standard of the test.

Next week, I’ll be looking at writing job advertisements and other means of getting your vacancy to the people you want to see it. In the meantime, if you have a recruitment need and would like some help or advice, don’t hesitate to contact me for a confidential chat.

Recruitment – one step at a time


Imagine you’re considering an investment in new equipment for your business. The total cost will be about £250k, to be paid for over 10 years.

I’m guessing you would see that as a very big investment, and would do a lot of research, checking whether the kit you’re looking at is fit for purpose, will be reliable, and will give you a good return. If possible you’ll want to test it first, and you’d certainly check what other users thought. You’d look at a few manufacturers if there was a choice. And if it turned out that you’d made a bad decision, you might sell the kit, take a loss, and put it down to experience.

Recruitment is an equally important investment. Over ten years the cost can easily exceed £250k, and the damage that can be done to your business and its reputation by a bad decision can prove to be far more costly. And as we all know, getting rid of a poor performing member of staff, or one with a bad attitude, isn’t straightforward or without cost and risk. There is also a framework of anti-discrimination law, where compensation awards can be eye-watering.

And yet too often a decision to hire someone is taken after a hurried and cursory interview based on a vague idea of what’s required, a misleading advertisement, inadequate reference checking, and little or no induction of the new team member.

So this blog, and a few to follow, will take you through the building blocks of a sound recruitment and selection process. In the end, no process is guaranteed to get you the well-motivated and high-performing employee of your dreams, but by being systematic and rigorous you can improve your chances considerably and, at the same time, stay on the right side of the legislation.

For any grannies out there (or granddads) who consider their egg-sucking skills require no improvement, sorry to have bothered you. Or you can read on, and see if you agree.

Let’s start at the very beginning … 

I’m assuming that you’ve done the thinking. You’ve worked out what employing someone will cost, what benefit they will be to your business, and you’ve considered the options such as using temporary or agency workers, students, apprentices and so on. You’ve decided that you need an employee for however many hours a week. Better get an advert out quickly then? Erm.. no. There’s work to do first.

The starting point for any recruitment is a Job Description. The clue is in its name – it describes the job to be done. Even if you’re replacing someone who’s leaving, always have a look at the job description to see if it’s still accurate. Ideally, discuss it with the person leaving – does it describe what they actually do? Is that what you want that job to do? You can change it, of course. If you have a number of people doing the same job, you might want to negotiate changes to a generic Job Description.

A Job description won’t cover absolutely everything someone might need to do, and neither do they have a right to do everything in it all the time. But it should give a fair and balanced picture of what the job’s about and by doing so should avoid any future disagreements.

A bit of Googling will show you that there are many Job Description formats out there, and you should find the one that suits you best. Some talk about Accountabilities, some are Output focused, and others describe what the person will be doing.

For me, a good Job Description gives the jobholder a clear idea of what they are meant to be doing and what’s expected of them, isn’t so detailed as to feel that they have no discretion at all but equally isn’t so vague that there is no clear accountability.

For example, let’s assume you’re going to appoint a salesperson.

Too vague: “Sell as many widgets as possible”

Too detailed: “Make and receive phone calls, speak to and visit customers, describe the benefits of our widgets, the price and delivery dates, and sell widgets, record the orders in the system …”

A more sensible Job Description would say “Using a range of techniques, and based on first rate product knowledge, achieve agreed sales targets set from time to time”.

I would suggest a format along the following lines, but you can create your own to suit your circumstances:

Job Title – give this some thought. Research has shown that some people would take a better job title over a pay rise. A title that is seen as low-status or indeed more senior than it actually is will certainly put off some applicants. We’ll come back to this when we talk about advertising.

Job Purpose – why does this job exist? A high-level outline of what the job is about. ‘As a member of a small salesforce, achieve sales targets, ensuring high levels of customer satisfaction and repeat business. By improving sales, contribute to the company’s profitability and future growth’

Key Tasks – The main activities that make up the job. Again, not too detailed. No-one wants to see ‘On arrival in the office, switch on your computer.’

Accountabilities – what is the person actually accountable for, and to whom. ‘Accountable to the Sales manager for achieving quarterly sales targets’.

Contacts – who does the jobholder deal with, and why? ‘Sales Manager – to agree targets, escalate issues, seek advice’; ‘Customers, up to and including Managing Director level…’

The Legal Bit

It is unlawful, when recruiting, to discriminate against people for any of the ‘protected characteristics’ set out in the Equality Act 2010. These are:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender reassignment
  • Marriage and Civil Partnership
  • Pregnancy and Maternity
  • Race
  • Religion or Belief
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation

I’ll come back to this in more detail in the next blog,  but when writing a Job Description it is important not to put anything in it which might imply an intention to discriminate.

For example, if you were to say ‘Working in a young team (average age 25)’ or ‘Lifting heavy weights’ ‘dealing with mostly Asian customers’ even if these things are true, they are likely to be interpreted as meaning that you intend to discriminate on the basis of age, sex or race respectively and you are leaving yourself open to potentially very damaging and expensive litigation.

Next time – the Person Specification. If you don’t know who you’re looking for, how will you know when you’ve found them?

In the meantime, if you are planning to recruit and would like some friendly, confidential advice.  Just go to the ‘Contact’ page of the site.