Forced return to work, discrimination in layoffs can put firms in deep trouble
As organisations prepare to reopen offices after Covid-19 lockdowns, in addition to health and safety risks, business leaders must consider risks associated with forcefully asking employees to return to work or laying off staff based on age, gender or race which can result in legal repercussions, brand vilification and financial decline, a new report has warned.
Rushing employees back to work against their comfort level not only creates a psychologically unsafe environment for these employees, it may lead to lawsuits, public backlash and increased regulatory scrutiny, according to a new Forrester report detailing most critical risks for businesses to avoid post Covid-19 lockdowns.
Employees who speak out about going back to work could be seen as troublemakers, be alienated by their colleagues and bosses, and be managed out, causing a series of unfair dismissal cases.
“All of this will, in turn, lead to a toxic culture and employee, customer, and public backlash. Worse, the issue of liability for employees that get sick has yet to be determined,” said Heidi Shey, Principal Analyst.
In Australia, claims for unfair dismissal have increased by 70 per cent during the pandemic, and the estimated cost of for companies to defend an unfair dismissal claim can range from $15,000 to $100,000 per claim.
In Massachusetts, Walmart had to close three stores after 27 employees tested positive for the virus and one died.
As of May 4, more than 800 COVID-19-related lawsuits had been filed in the US. In some cases, employees are claiming that work was the main contributing factor of them getting infected.
Amazon has been accused of retaliating against employees who wanted to sound the alarm on unsafe working conditions, prompting one executive to resign, bringing negative headlines that have overshadowed some of the critical practices the Amazon has since taken to protect workers.
“Don’t force people to come back before they’re ready; if your employees are successfully and happily working from home, be flexible and give them the option to stay there. Making them come back before the crisis slows down opens the door to the risk of being held liable for illness,” suggested Shey.
There may be instances where employees need to be in an office environment, such as cases of family violence or poor network connectivity, where you must make accommodations.
The senior management should communicate with empathy, transparency, and clarity.
“Plan to leave a percentage of your workforce at home, and make sure you consult with your employees and gain their buy-in. Train your frontline managers to identify and avoid bullying and harassment,” said the report.
For decisions dealing with recruiting, granting essential employees permission to use office premises, or enacting lay-offs, the firms must avoid assumptions based on implicit bias.
“Blanket policies that target sections of your workforce, such as older age, racial, or linguistic groups will backfire. Such bias-prone decisions will also lead to the loss of trust among your workforce and the loss of experienced employees,” the Forrester report emphasised.
A discriminatory workplace can be a top deterrent against attracting new talent when conditions improve.
Other critical risks to mitigate for the return to work are failure to comply with health and safety standards and regulations; failure to ensure the safety of employees during their entire journey; partner violations of safe workplace environment; violation of employees’ privacy rights and violation of employees’ privacy rights with contact-tracing solutions, among others.
A growing number of employers believe that tracking employees’ movement within work premises – knowing who they met and which rooms they visited while at work – can provide valuable insights for reducing the spread of COVID-19, and contact tracing technology is taking center stage for this effort.
“Regardless of the approach, mobile app, wearable device, badge card, or manual approaches contact tracing comes with great privacy challenges,” the report mentioned.