Staffing the practice in the case of bad weather

With reports forecasting that this will be the coldest winter for 30 years, now is a good time to review your bad weather strategy and policy to ensure your practice is prepared

24 December 2019, at 9:00am

While for many businesses this would include reviewing and communicating flexible working and homeworking policies to ensure business continuity when staff cannot make it to the office, this is not an option for most veterinary practices. However, planning in advance will help minimise disruption to your practice while considering the safety of your staff.

The legal position

A good starting point for your strategy is to know where you stand legally. In general, you are not obliged to pay staff who cannot get to work due to travel disruption or adverse weather conditions, unless their contract of employment states otherwise. However, if you take the decision to shut the practice, you will need to pay staff who are contractually guaranteed hours or salary, otherwise this could count as an unlawful deduction or a breach of contract. The exception would be if the employment contract contained a temporary “lay-off” clause. You may then be entitled not to pay staff, even when the practice is closed.

To pay or not to pay

Once you know your legal position, you can decide if this is the approach you would like to take or if you would like to be more generous and pay staff even if you are not obliged to do so. This may be better for morale and productivity in the long term and will prevent staff who cannot afford to lose a day’s pay risking their safety by struggling into work.

However, paying staff regardless of whether or not they are able to work can be problematic. Some members of staff may not make the effort to get to work, and those who do may feel resentful if their colleagues are being paid to stay at home. Finding a way to recognise the efforts of those who are at work may help to minimise any resentment.

If you decide against paying staff unless you are legally obliged to, any lost time can be treated as unpaid absence, made up at a later date or taken as annual leave. This can be agreed on an individual basis. However, you cannot force staff to use annual leave, they must do so voluntarily as employers must give sufficient notice before asking staff to take holiday and are generally not allowed to dictate when it is taken.

Consistency and fairness

Whichever approach you decide is best for your practice, you need to be consistent and fair both with individual employees and in terms of what has happened on previous occasions. In addition, you should also ensure consistency and fairness across the different policies that may also apply, such as your time off for dependants’ policy. If nurseries or schools are closed at short notice due to travel disruption or weather issues, staff will be entitled to take a reasonable amount of time off work to deal with the loss of childcare. While this time off does not have to be paid, if it is paid under your policy it may be seen as unreasonable not to pay staff without dependants who also cannot make it into work, albeit for different reasons.

Scenario planning

In reality, if your staff are struggling to travel to work due to weather conditions, many of your clients may be unable to keep their appointments and therefore you may not need a full complement of staff in the practice. You could review your appointments during previous periods of bad weather and calculate the percentage that were cancelled or no shows to help you plan what level of staffing you might need in a similar scenario.

If you have enough staff who live locally, you may be able to establish a bad weather team that can be called in at short notice, swapping shifts with those who were due to work, so that no-one is disadvantaged. Non-urgent appointments could also be rearranged in advance to take the pressure off the reduced team on duty and ensure their workload is manageable. You could also nominate an individual at your practice to actively monitor weather and travel conditions and implement your bad weather scenario when severe disruption is anticipated.

Finalise and communicate

Once you have finalised your bad weather strategy and policy you should clearly communicate it to staff, ideally before any disruption has occurred, so that they know what to expect in advance. The policy should also remind them that any abuse of the policy may lead to disciplinary action.

With disruption due to travel and weather conditions becoming more common throughout the whole year, time invested in planning ahead for this scenario will be time well spent.

HR Consultant at HR4VETS

Elaine Fisher is an HR professional with over 20 years’ personal hands-on management experience. She provides HR advice, guidance and support to veterinary practices at HR4VETS –a service provided by Eagle HR. She is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development.

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