It was the afternoon break of an employment law conference.
Chief executives, trustees and senior staff of charities had spent
the day hearing about the implications of new employment
legislation. They all looked tired and worried, but the mood was
summed up by a taciturn chief executive who happened to be sitting
next to me at tea. “Sorry,” he told me apologetically when the
silence dragged on, “I’m almost too exhausted to speak.” However,
he did manage to ask me what I did. When I told him I was a human
resources adviser to the voluntary sector his eyes lit up.
His response is not unusual. One of the biggest problems facing
small charities is that they are too small to justify employing an
internal human resources expert. This can lead to expensive
mistakes and wasted time. Even when policies are in place, managers
often lack the skills to implement them effectively. As a result,
issues that need to be tackled are left hanging until they become
This piece looks at three of the most common human resources issues
faced by voluntary groups, and how to tackle them.
Sub-standard employee performance
A common problem is an employee whose behaviour or
performance are not up to standard. It is particularly difficult to
deal with when staff have been “inherited” and an issue has been
allowed to fester. However, it is never too late and the steps to
First, identify exactly what the issues are and in what way the
person is not meeting the standards required.
Next, meet with the individual informally to clarify the gap
between their performance or behaviour and what the organisation
requires, ideally at the time of the incident(s).
Third, if there is no change, consider using the disciplinary
procedure. Take care to ensure that the new legislative guidelines
on this procedure are followed, to avoid any employment tribunal
claims arising from its use. These include:
l Giving adequate notice that a disciplinary meeting is to be
held and that the person has the right to be accompanied (by a
colleague or a union representative).
- Explaining the problem and being clear about the change that is
- Considering their response before issuing any warnings.
- Providing a timescale for change and a review of the
- Explaining what will happen next if change is not
- Documenting everything and passing copies to the person
Request for flexible working
An increasingly common request among staff is to work flexibly,
perhaps on reduced hours, term-time only hours or working from home
for part or all of their working time. New legislation on the right
to request flexible working came out earlier this year for parents
with children under the age of six. To be eligible, staff must have
26 weeks’ continuous service with their employer at the time of the
request. A set procedure must be followed and if it is not, the
employer can be fined up to £2,080 by an employment
As well as familiarising themselves with the new procedure
charities should also have a flexible working policy so that they
can deal with any requests in a consistent way.
The new legislation requires staff to make a sound case for working
flexibly. This includes thinking through the implications for their
colleagues and the provision of service to “clients” and customers.
They also have to come up with solutions to any problems that might
arise as a result of a change to their working patterns. In
addition, once the change has been made it becomes a permanent,
contractual change that cannot be altered without the employer’s
agreement. Also, only one request a year can be made by an
For many smaller organisations, and this includes thousands of
charities of course, a change to an employee’s working pattern can
be very significant to the working of the organisation. An
application can be refused where there is a clear business reason.
Some examples of grounds for refusing include:
- Burden of additional costs.
- Detrimental effect on ability to meet customer demand.
- Inability to reorganise work among existing staff or to recruit
- Detrimental impact on quality or performance.
- Insufficient work when the employee proposes to work.
- Planned structural changes.
For those not eligible to request the right to work flexibly on
the grounds of being a parent, it is important to have a clear
policy on how such requests will be dealt with. For reasons of
fairness, many charities are giving such requests the same
consideration as set out above.
In addition to the legislative guidelines, it is also important to
consider other issues for staff who request flexible working,
especially for those wishing to work from home. Again, it is
important to have a policy setting out the issues and the following
points should be addressed when considering a request for
- Health and safety.
- Supplier of office equipment.
- Responsibility of office equipment repairs and
- Additional utility costs.
- Management of their staff.
- Management and supervision of them and their work.
- Personality – are they self-disciplined and do they need people
As can be seen from this list, there are many issues to think
about with home working but as long as they are addressed up front,
it can be a very productive way of working.
Dealing with staff absence
Another common issue is long-term sickness absence or frequent
short-term absence. Setting out a policy that gives managers
guidelines on how to deal with absence problems, and demonstrates
to staff that these problems will not just be ignored, is a good
place to start.
Good guidelines include:
- Holding “return to work” interviews.
- Recording all absences.
- Following your policy for paid and unpaid sick leave –
- Being clear with staff when situations become
- Is this a real health issue or a morale problem?
- Using an occupational health specialist where appropriate.
- Considering temporary/permanent adjustments to work
- Being aware of your duties under the Disability Discrimination
1 Get your policies right before problems arise.
2 Ensure managers are familiar with them and know how to use
3 Record-keeping must be tight – document all issues.
4 When problems arise with staff, deal with them immediately.
Julie Fewtrell is a freelance human resources adviser to
the voluntary sector.