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How to Manage Reluctant Employees in Covid Times

Over the past year employers have found themselves asking employees to undertake a wide range of new things as a result of Covid-19, from regular sanitising to going on furlough leave – which let’s not forget, a year ago most people had never heard of!

Based on anecdotal evidence from employers who work with View HR, the vast majority of employees have been very understanding of the need for flexibility in these challenging times.  However, in some cases, employees have been reluctant to do as their employer asks.  This can happen in a range of situations, such as:

  • Not wanting to return to the workplace after a period of furlough leave or working from home;
  • Refusing to undertake alternative duties (a topic covered in another one of our recent blogs);
  • Ignoring government advice and related company policies around social distancing;
  • Refusing to wear PPE, including face masks;
  • Other personal reasons (which need exploring).

When you are an employer and are working hard to protect jobs, it can be easy to assume that a reluctant employee may just be being “difficult”.  However, it may be that the employee has a valid reason for their objections.  For example, if an employee is expressing concerns about returning from furlough, it may be that they have an underlying health condition which means that they should be shielding (and if they have had a recent diagnosis, they may not have been required to shield in the first lockdown) or perhaps they are home-schooling. 

As such, if an employee expresses a concern about (or even refuses) a request, the first step is to discuss with them the reasons for this.  Any conversations of this nature should be undertaken in a sensitive and supportive manner, and in a private setting as the employee may wish to discuss personal information with you.

However, in some cases the situation may be less clear-cut than the example above.  For example, the current guidance on shielding does not apply to those who live with somebody else who is extremely clinically vulnerable.  As such, those individuals can continue to attend work if they cannot work from home, and their employer may need them to be at work.  But it is nonetheless understandable that these people will want to try and minimise the risk to their loved one at home.  In situations of this nature, a discussion about health and safety precautions applicable to that employee in their role, which provides them with an opportunity to ask questions and make suggestions, may be beneficial.

Do also be open to working with employees to identify flexible solutions.  For example, with schools closed, parents may find themselves unable to work full-time (from home or otherwise), however, it may be that they would be able to undertake some part-time work under the flexible furlough scheme.  It should also be remembered that even though this is not the first lockdown, it is still not an easy time for many, and their mental health and motivation may be suffering.  Our blog last week considers employee motivation, and we have further blogs on employee wellbeing coming up over the next few weeks.

However, there may also be situations when an employee’s refusal to follow an instruction could become a disciplinary matter.  For example, if an employee refuses to wear a face mask when required, because of personal preference rather than because they have a valid medical exemption, this may constitute insubordination.  Again, an initial discussion to understand the reasons is the first step that should be taken before considering any disciplinary sanctions, however.

If you are an employer with a reluctant employee, and would like some support or advice on how to address this, please contact a member of the View HR team for an initial discussion.