Wednesday, 11 January 2017

My employee’s got cancer, what do I do?

There are few things as scary, yet as common as a cancer diagnosis. Statistics show that one in two people in the UK will get cancer at some point in their lifetime and according to Macmillan, over 700,000 people of working age are currently living with a cancer diagnosis. Yet the taboo surrounding it is still very real. For me, as someone who was recently diagnosed, one of the worst aspects of the whole situation was telling people and seeing their faces. A mixture of sadness, terror and sheer helplessness. Then people calm down and start to ask questions about your prognosis, your treatment and how you’re generally doing. It is the answers to these questions that define cancer for each unique individual. Not just because there are hundreds of types of cancers, all with different prognoses and treatments, but because each person reacts differently, both physically and psychologically to their situation. If someone has a broken leg it’s often fairly straightforward to understand their restrictions and healing period, but despite its prevalence, the same cannot be said of cancer.

Putting that into the context of a workplace and it’s clearly complicated. There isn’t a one size fits all approach that can work. So how does an employer both look after someone with cancer whilst ensuring business continuity? This is where flexibility and communication come in. The employer will need to be flexible, whilst the employee needs to be confident in articulating their situation, their needs and their changing circumstances as they go through treatment and progress reports. Both will need to work together to strike the right balance.

It’s important to accept that the only certainty with cancer is uncertainty, as the course of treatment will change based on the response. The patient’s reaction to the treatment is also not clear cut, as each session can result in different side effects, which whilst physically disruptive, also contribute to psychological stress and uncertainty. Most people with cancer, however good the prognosis, are dealing with bigger picture issues over their survival, so the additional uncertainty of day to day wellbeing, cannot be underestimated.

In chemotherapy, for example, the first few treatment cycles may require minimal time out, as the body is still relatively strong, but as time goes by and the cumulative effects kick in, the number of rest days may need to increase as the person gets weaker and in some circumstances it could be a simple question of a ‘phased departure’ from work to sick leave, ideally followed by a phased return as the employee gets better and stronger.

At the same time there will always be other circumstances to consider for the employee. Will work provide an opportunity for the patient to keep their mind occupied, or will it be an additional source of stress which is best avoided? What are the financial issues and sick pay considerations? Is there work that the patient will physically be capable of doing, or indeed work that can be done flexibly with interruptions? In a larger organisation, would a temporary move to a different role be helpful, if the patient’s usual role cannot be done flexibly?

Some workplaces are extremely conscious about consistency, but I would argue that individual circumstances have to take precedent. This requires a high degree of openness on the part of the patient to reduce any potential misunderstanding. This in turn require the employer to demonstrate that they can be trusted to use this information and handle the situation sensitively, clearly explaining the rationale for any decisions they make around attendance, reasonable adjustments etc.
To use an example, imagine an organisation which offers six months full sick pay. Two employees are diagnosed at the same time with similar cancers. They have good prognoses but both require six months of chemotherapy.

  • The first is a busy young parent who has most of the childcare responsibility in the family, as their spouse is the main breadwinner and cannot take regular unpaid time off. The cancer diagnosis essentially means that they have to take more time for themselves, but cannot neglect their young children. Their doctor has issued a fit note saying that they are not capable of work until further notice.
  • The second person lives alone and has minimal family responsibilities. For them, giving up work would present a major gap in their life as they would likely spend them sitting at home with little to do, potentially getting into a negative psychological state which will impact their physical wellbeing and make it much more difficult for them to return to work when they are better. Their doctor has issued a sick note saying that they are capable of working with reasonable adjustments.

Whilst potentially inconsistent in simple terms, these scenarios seem logical and reasonable in the context of the bigger picture. Of course it may well be the case that reasonable adjustments are not possible, but in the context of the modern flexible workplace which reflects technological advances and lifestyle expectations, approaches and management of common illnesses like cancer should also be a consideration.

In short, employers should consider the following:

  • What are the individual circumstances of the illness and how can they encourage employees to feel comfortable providing detailed and open information?
  • What is the employee’s support network and lifestyle like – is taking a long period of time off likely to be good for their mental health?
  • What does the employee want to do? What does their doctor’s note say?
  • What can they realistically offer in terms of adjustments – advice should be sought from an occupational health practitioner wherever possible.
  • What are the timescales of treatment and how regularly are progress reports expected?
  • Not comparing employees and being aware of the uniqueness of each situation.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Employee Engagement Issues? Get Your EmployER Engagement Right First

The Sports Direct scandal is all over the news. The owner Mike Ashley has been quoted as saying that the business became so big that he didn’t know what was going on, despite conditions for workers being described as ‘Victorian’. This lament has been met with dubious cynicism, and whether true or not, his reputation as an employer and businessman has taken a massive hit.
However, let’s assume he’s telling the truth. Regardless of whether a business treats its workers well or badly, is there a case for owners and CEOs to remain ignorant of what’s happening on the shop floor, even if they aren’t involved in the day to day management? 

It’s clear that Sports Direct’s workforce was unengaged, unhappy and stressed. Workers stayed because they needed the work, not because they had anything good to say about the business. But needing the work isn’t enough to make anyone do a good job, it’s enough to make people jump through hoops (for example in the case of Sports Direct, allegedly working when they should be in hospital giving birth), to give the appearance of doing their job, however badly, in order to keep their position. It may keep the business turning over, but imagine how much more profitable a company would be with an engaged, broadly contented workforce which strives to perform well.
Essentially it is about understanding and engaging with your business. Whether a decision maker is looking to grow, promote or even sell their business, they’ll usually look at costs, market share and profit. But if they don’t know what’s happening in their own backyard, they run the risk of the same sort of humiliation that Mike Ashley has just faced across our TV screens.

In many cases it’s not a question of pay and conditions, but the day to issues and frustrations employees face when doing their jobs. One disgruntled employee of an extremely profitable multinational recently told me how he had faced a 30 minute wait at either end of the day to switch on and shut down his PC, because they would not replace their machines and no executive would take an interest in the situation. As a result the company lost an hour of his time every day; he already worked an average of 9-10 hours per day with an hour commute and refused to start earlier or leave later to make up for the company’s short sightedness.

Being engaged with your staff doesn’t mean you can solve all their problems or give them everything they ask for. Mike Ashley declared that he wasn’t Santa Claus and nobody (except perhaps some of the less pragmatic trade unions) expects him to be. But being engaged as an employer does mean you can relate to staff, sort out minor issues, jointly explore where investment may add greatest value (e.g. PCs that work properly) and evaluate whether procedures and processes designed with all right intentions, actually deliver the results you originally sought. It also means that if you are looking to sell or buy a business, there’s a much smaller chance of any hidden nasties emerging which will come back to bite you.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Thanks for all the germs, now will you just go home!

We all know the ones. The people who come into the office spluttering, coughing and spreading their germs everywhere. They’re clearly not welcome. But they’ve gritted their teeth and shown up to work, often with a proud ‘Oh I’m fine. I’ve not had a day off sick in seventeen years!’ Then there are those at the other end of the spectrum; one sneeze at 4 o’clock and they leave a bit early, not to be seen for the rest of the week.

As with any issue with people, a reasonable moderate approach somewhere between these two extremes of presenteeism and absenteeism is obviously the most logical solution. It’s useful to remember that everyone is different, for example with colds some people may be sneezing and coughing but feel OK, whilst others can feel feverish and weak for several days without showing many obvious symptoms.

No employer wants staff taking time off sick unnecessarily, but neither do they want someone to come in who is spreading their germs to make everyone else sick, and is feeling so lousy that they’re probably being utterly unproductive anyway. Looking at the issue more widely, is the person who always stays an extra couple of hours at the end of the day actually a more productive and dedicated employee than the one who leaves on time?

Most companies monitor absences, but it’s much harder to monitor presenteeism. Where do you draw the line between someone coming into the workplace who is mildly unwell but perfectly fine to work and someone who just should not be there? How do you genuinely distinguish between the employee who puts in a huge amount of discretionary effort and the one who merely occupies their desk till 7pm in order to manage others’ perceptions, or because they cannot work efficiently?

The ability to work from home in many jobs also adds to the complexity. In some cases, for example contagious colds, or issues with mobility, working from home provides a way for companies and staff to avoid sickness absence while remaining just as productive as if they had come into the workplace. 
But again, it has its pitfalls. It can skew expectations, with employees who really should be taking some time off refusing to do so, or their employers expecting them to work, because they can do so in their pyjamas surrounded by cups of hot tea. Again the question arises as to whether the person is genuinely fit to work not just physically but mentally. On the other hand, it can be a great way for someone to avoid taking an official sick day, but in reality sitting at home doing practically no work.  

So how to deal with this in a way that works, but doesn’t treat people like robots:
  • Monitor individual absences and the reasons for them, but don’t get drawn into comparing people based on how long they were absent for the same reason.
o   This only serves to create tension in the workplace and a presenteeism culture where people who shouldn’t be there force themselves to come in.
o   If you suspect someone is taking advantage, monitor the frequency of the absence and whether there are any patterns to it.
  • If people are working from home due to sickness, check in on them at some point during the day to see how they are feeling and run through what they have been working on. If you suspect they are not actually in a position to be effective, or that they have done next to no work, tell them to stop and take the day off as officially sick. They won’t lose pay as they’ve worked a part day, but it does mean they’ll need to day the next day off as sick leave or be in the office.  
  • Make sure staff are aware that if they are unwell and likely to be contagious, coming into the workplace is frowned upon. The increase in sickness levels is likely to be balanced out, as fewer people actually get sick in the first place.
  •  If someone has a chronic condition, encourage them to be open about it.
o   It may be that there will be an adjustment to working hours, or an understanding that they are likely to have more sick days than the average employee, but it means that mutual expectations can be set and avoid both potential disciplinary action for frequent absence on one hand or a ‘blank cheque’ approach to their sickness on the other, where absence is simply unquestioned because of the persons condition.
  • In the UK, you don’t have to pay any sick pay for up to the first three days of absence (if they have worked a part day, you do need to pay them). It’s a great strategy for stopping people ‘swinging the lead’ unnecessarily, and only taking the time off if they are really sick, but again can cause issues around presenteeism.
o   One solution is to give employees a certain number (no more than three) of ‘duvet days’ a year. These are paid days when they can call in and say they don’t feel like coming into work for whatever reason.
o   Everyone will of course take them, so you’ll need to incorporate costs into your overall salary and benefits package and make sure it’s affordable. However, it means that employees have a contingency when they are really ill and are not going to force themselves into work, whilst ensuring that any continual ‘offenders’ will financially lose out should they choose to take sick leave without real cause.

Essentially, the best approach to sick leave is to balance humanity, commerciality and common sense, remembering that everyone is different, both in terms of their health and their ability to be honest!  

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Successful Workforce Mergers - The Power of Planning and Positive Engagement

This is the executive summary of a report compiled by Blacklarke in January 2016.  To receive the full report, or for more information on help on your business journey, be it a merger, acquisition, sale or change in strategy, contact

Business changes, particularly mergers, acquisitions and sales, have a huge impact on leaders and employees of an organisation. Uncertainty, tight deadlines and a clash of cultures can all combine to create an unhealthy and unproductive working environment. Yet getting to the bottom line through the financial and legal processes is still regarded as the primary objective, while ensuring sustainable success by having employees buy into the change, is often a secondary consideration.

For this report, Blacklarke HR Consulting interviewed CEOs and HR Directors of a large number of companies which have been through mergers, acquisitions or sales over the past few years. The purpose is to establish whether there are any consistent themes to maintaining employee engagement during these periods of change and to identify a set of simple principles which the leaders of organisations should follow when embarking on a change journey.

We examined a diverse range of organisations, including family businesses with under 30 employees, professional services firms, charities and multinational corporations. Whilst the circumstances of each case were clearly different, what emerged was a set of clear and straightforward principles that are needed when approaching a project of this nature, particularly when considering the morale of the people impacted by it.

We concluded that confidence in the journey was key to success and more importantly, key to maintaining morale, even during a difficult period.

This involves the three Cs:

  • ensuring full due diligence is completed before finalising a deal 
  • having a clear vision, goal and strategy   
  • not being afraid to leave behind those who do not support the vision 
  • ensuring the strategy is articulated and emphasised 
  • seeking feedback on the strategy from employees  
  • following up with actions to demonstrate commitment to the strategy 
  • ensuring follow up takes place quickly 
  • ensuring follow up is in line with the articulated strategy   
  • sticking to the plans unless there is a fundamental reason to alter course, which must be justified and communicated  
Without these principles, a change programme may eventually succeed, but is likely to be a painful process with commercially detrimental legacy issues continuing to hamper progress over many subsequent years.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

New ideas? Or just a disruptive interlude?

There have been a couple of features in the news over the past few weeks which drew a huge amount of attention. The first was Richard Branson’s declaration that more companies should hire ‘disruptive talent’. This means people who don’t fit in the classic company mould or rules and do things their own way, but often achieve excellent results. The other item was around management consultancy giant Accenture’s decision to change the way it does annual performance reviews. They’ve decided to move away from end of year/end of project ladderings and ratings which take a huge amount of time and don’t compare like with like, to a more ongoing system of feedback between managers and their staff.

Speaking as someone who is certainly disruptive (whether talented or not is not for me to say) and who has experienced the Accenture merry-go-round first hand, both of these announcements initially filled this business director with glee. 

Firstly, it seems obvious that performance is better managed on an ongoing basis so everyone knows where they stand and that issues can be ironed out quickly. The Accenture system of laddering, where nobody on a project could be regarded as performing equally, seemed incredibly contrived, not to mention the dark art of how a rating linked to one’s pay and bonus. As one manager eloquently put it ‘it’s utterly bizarre that as we’re giving everyone more money, we’re somehow managing to piss them all off.’  Secondly, a huge amount of the workforce, primarily those under 40, are striving to be individuals who can make their mark on the world, feeling fulfilled and passionate about what they do. It seems clear that being oneself and doing things in an individual way, even if it does involve being disruptive, makes for a happier, healthier and more fulfilled employee.

However, my initial wave of positivity quickly wore off. Just because Branson says it’s a good idea and just because Accenture have changed an approach they’ve had for the last 20 years doesn’t make them universally correct. As influential industry players it makes them fashionable.

Plenty of companies already work on a basis of creativity, the media being a great example, where hiring freelancers rather than employees is the norm. And a huge number of companies have quietly gone about doing their appraisals through positive manager-staff relationships for years. So is not really the case that the big consultancies were stuck in dog-eat-dog world of the 1980s and were way behind a trend which they have suddenly ‘discovered’?

Taking a step back, surely the main point raised by this flurry of activity is that one size does not fit all. In a regulated or process orientated organisation, is ‘disruptive talent’ actually required or helpful? In sales organisation, is it about monthly feedback and the softer skills, or do the targets speak for themselves and allow people to be compared against each other?

More importantly, if you’re a big organisation, how disruptive can disruptive be? Does it mean that those employees considered to be ‘artistes’ can swan in and out as they like, while those who get on and do their jobs well are expected to be in from 9-5 and do as they are told? Are the disruptive ones really going to work for their employer, or regardless of how they’re treated, going to up and start their own company as soon as they possibly can? Where is the line between acceptably and unacceptably disruptive? And when it comes to performance and you want to give bonuses, how the heck does an organisation work out who should get more and who should get less if they don’t have some sort of laddered ratings scale?

It’s not about reading a news article and reworking an entire organisational culture and hiring practices accordingly. It’s about focussing on what works for the employer, the employees and ultimately, what works commercially.  And that’s where a good HR consultancy like Blacklarke, with an external perspective, can make a big difference.