Great news for fans of cheap political propaganda this week as the Department for Business Innovation & Skills releases an updated version of its 2011 Employers’ Charter.
The original version was a shallow gesture aimed at dispelling the belief common among retired Colonels and other Daily Express readers that UK employment laws are all tilted irretrievably in favour of the employee. It was in consequence risible simplistic claptrap, advancing a series of statements of the obvious but bereft of anything actually helpful to employers in any way.
The new version is different. It is longer, for one thing, adding in new paragraphs relating to the employer’s right to seek an independent assessment of an employee’s fitness for work and to dismiss for long-term or repeated short-term absences. Overall, however, it merely maintains the previous edition’s relatively limited aspirations, i.e. “to help employers understood what they can do in general” but reiterates just before the reader gets too comfortable that “individual circumstances may vary and employers need to act in accordance with their legal obligations”. What’s that bear doing in those woods?
The new Charter’s online version, available on also has click-through links to detailed guidance on those legal obligations, though that is using the words “detailed” and indeed “guidance” in their loosest sense.
In particular, there remains a tension between the Charter’s bold statement that “if you act fairly and reasonably you can ask an employee about future career plans, including retirement” on the one hand, and the ACAS booklet “Working Without the Default Retirement Age” on the other. This makes it clear in the Q&A at the back that any direct questions such as “Are you planning to retire in the near future?” or “You seem to have been slowing down of late, have you thought about retirement?” are best avoided.
It is surely this sort of inconsistency which unsettles employers far more than any real doubt as to whether they are entitled to dismiss the sick or poorly-performing members of their staff. Does the Government really believe that there are employers out there who do not know (and who lack the wit to find out) that they can make employees redundant “if their business takes a downward turn”? and does this not itself mislead those same employers in any case, since in no sense is a downward turn in business a pre-condition of a fair redundancy. Government guidance on employment practice is all well and good, but it really needs to be of a higher standard than this Charter.