Post-Covid-19 the potential for cracks in employee relations and spurts of activism is high. HR need to be alert to the new fault lines for disputes and grievances, and look carefully at both formal processes in place (the detail that’s likely to be examined even more closely in Covid-related tribunal cases, looking for unreasonable behaviour, delays and unfair handling of situations) – as well as the availability of the kinds of people skills and offerings like mediation that can defuse tensions before they fracture relationships.

For 2021, here are some of the newest sources of workplace conflict:

1. Anti-vaxxers

Around 38% of 13,000 professionals surveyed by Nature Medicine journal in November 2020 said they would ignore advice from their employer to receive a Covid-19 vaccination. In legal terms employers can’t insist on vaccination and any different treatment of employees would constitute discrimination. With a clear divide between the ‘anti-vaxxers’ and the rest, what happens to day-to-day employee relations and attempts to return to normal office routines and face-to-face meetings?

2. ‘Return-to-normality’ clashes

The clash in perspectives over the pandemic is more urgently felt and more affecting than Brexit ever was. Activism has been growing internationally among groups who believe coronavirus restrictions have been out of proportion with the health risks, and have caused more harm than good in terms of lost jobs, isolation and damage to mental health. 

There is the potential for tensions between employees who worked through lockdowns who have saw colleagues furloughed and being paid for not working; and vice-versa, furloughed staff who are isolated and bored at home. Employer decision-making on who was selected for furlough is open to challenge.

3. Redundancy

The likelihood of redundancies into the New Year means more pressure on employers in terms of selection processes and how employees are kept informed. Failure to warn and consult an employee individually of proposed redundancy often leads to unfair dismissal claims at tribunals. 

New question marks are being raised over whether the pandemic constituted ‘special circumstances’ for employers, meaning employers don’t need to fulfil collective consultation obligations when more than 20 staff are made redundant.

4. Refusal to attend 

During the mass vaccination period there are likely to be grey areas around whether workplaces are ‘safe’ in the view of employees. Employees are required to abide by an employer’s ‘reasonable’ instructions. But an employee can leave their workplace and refuse to return if they have a reasonable belief that there are “circumstances of danger” which are “serious and imminent”. Action taken against the in these instances would be considered to be discrimination.

5. Staying at home 

Staff who have enjoyed the benefits of working from home will be looking for a permanent change or greater proportion of WFH in their schedule. Employees need to show how they have at least maintained levels of performance.

For those organisations reluctant to let staff change their working arrangements, there will be more pressure to find substantial reasons why requests have been refused. In particular there are risks of seeing more indirect disability, age and gender discrimination cases going to tribunal.

There’s no doubt the Covid-19 crisis led to an outpouring of togetherness – staff reported increased contact from managers, more active socialising, if only through screens of devices. Perhaps it was only made possible by the novelty of it all. Either way, HR need to build on that sense of community that remains. Respecting diversity of opinions can be as important as respecting other kinds of diversity. When it comes to vaccinations, for example, there are a list of reasons why someone won’t want to take a vaccine once they become available: pre-existing conditions or fears about side effects and implications for mental health.

Whatever the tensions and likely grievances that emerge post-Covid-19, there has to be a culture of trust and confidence in employer systems. Staff need to know they will be listened to, and that management will be understanding and reasonable. Simple enough in principle. In practice HR need to re-visit their approach to disputes and investigations to ensure the right skills and partners are in place: managers have a good standard of ‘difficult’ conversations skills and training; there is access to mediation; investigations are going to be carried out to the highest professional standards.

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