Well-known construction company, Mears, has banned its workers from having beards on health and safety grounds.
The company sent a letter to its staff detailing the reasons for their decision, but immediately incurred the wrath of Britain’s biggest union, Unite, who described the move as “penny-pinching stupidity”.
‘Elf and Safety’
Health and safety has its place in the construction industry, perhaps more than any other, but is this a step too far?
Mears has attributed the ban on facial hair to ensuring that face masks are able to achieve the required seal around the wearers mouth, something which facial hair actively blocks. They would rather their workers shave their beards as opposed to putting themselves at risk to potential lung injuries in years to come from inhaling dust and other potentially hazardous particles.
The big question
The question on the haired lips of many employees is whether a company is within their rights to enforce a rule where their staff are required to be clean shaven.
The short answer is yes. The long answer requires some explanation and caveats…
In general, employers can set whatever rules they want in the workplace, so long as they treat all employees fairly and without discrimination. For example, if they decided that only the workers in their Manchester branch needed to be clean shaven, but the staff in their Leeds office were free to grow facial hair, that would be indirect discrimination.
Employers can argue against indirect discrimination if it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.
In Mears case, the banning of beards would be a proportionate means of achieving the aim of ensuring the health and safety of all employees.
The morale victory
Before enforcing such a measure, an employer should think about the impact such a decision could have on morale in the workplace. A company’s employees are its best asset and measures may risk alienating them over a decision that is unnecessarily strict or onerous.
If you need to implement something that could be received in a negative way, communicate every step of the way. Make your employees know your reasoning behind the decision and listen to their concerns. People will respect a decision more if they feel valued, regardless of the outcome.
Starting this month, we’ll look at a burning business question and answer it via the business community. Instead of so called ‘experts’ telling you how to run your business, we will collate the best answers from those on the front line.
This month we head over to Business.com to answer the question, what are your best time management techniques?
First, make a list of everything you need to accomplish. Put “A” next to everything that MUST be done that day, “B” next to everything you SHOULD do that day and “C” next to things you’d like to do that day. Here’s a hint, Facebook and other social media channels are never in the “A” category. Also, try not to open emails until you have spent at least 90 minutes on your “A” game.
Have at least three priority items that if you got done today you’d be happy with. Concentrating on things that require energy and focus in the morning, when you’re most likely to have the desire to accomplish them. By working in 90 minute blocks of completely uninterrupted work (no phones, no emails, no colleagues!) and rewarding yourself with a 15-minute physical break from work you’re more likely to get things done.
A few other points worth noting included:
One user suggests being deliberately inflexible at times. Learning to say no is a big step for a lot of people. Instead of seeing it as a negative, try to explain yourself properly and if you can pick it up later, offer to do so. Don’t fall into the mistake of giving excuses to how busy you are, as this can sometimes be misconstrued as ‘I’m busier than you’ and will cause unnecessary tension.
Do you have a business query you want the community to answer? Send your questions to email@example.com and it could be featured in an upcoming community chest.
Blogs. Companies either love them or loathe them. Done well, they can engage an audience, encourage conversation or showcase someone’s knowledge on a key topic. Susan Fowler’s high profile blog on her time at Uber ticked all the ‘done well’ boxes, yet I’m guessing Uber secretly loathed it.
In February this year, Susan Fowler published a blog on her website detailing her time working as a site reliability engineer (SRE) at ride sharing start-up turned industry giant, Uber. Between joining in November 2015, to leaving in December 2016, Fowler described a culture of sexism, harassment and bullying which has tainted the brand and set the ball rolling on a cataclysm of events which culminated with CEO, Travis Kalanick resigning from his role just a few short days ago.
While Kalanick takes the brunt of the blame for a number of high profile cock ups, you can’t help but ask where HR were in all of this. If you’ve not caught up yet, here is a timeline of how disaster unfolded at Uber:
February 19 – Susan’s blog
The beginning of the end for Kalanick as former engineer, Fowler, details numerous instances of sexual harassment and bullying reported to HR which were continually brushed aside. Her time at Uber details the plight of an individual who was passionate about her work, but failed by her company.
February 20 – Uber brings in the lawyers
The day after Fowler’s blog hits, Uber hires former US attorney general Eric Holder and Tammy Albarran, both partners at law firm Covington & Burling, to investigate the claims.
March 1 – Dash cam meltdown
Footage emerges of Kalanick swearing at an Uber driver regarding the company’s treatment of drivers (ironic!). Kalanick issued an apology to all his employees by email and commits to getting leadership help.
March 24 – Karaoke and sexual favours
Five employees (paywall) at Uber, including Kalanick were reported to have frequented a karaoke bar in Seoul during a business trip to South Korea, all standard fayre until you realise that the bar also offers escort services. The report indicates that a female employee was present who complained to HR about the incident.
June 6 – Employee cleanse
Uber fired 20 employees following an investigation into its workplace culture by law firm Perkins Coie. The firm had investigated 215 staff complaints going back to 2012, 54 were related to discrimination, 47 related to sexual harassment, 45 to unprofessional behaviour, and 33 to bullying.
Uber also hired Harvard Business School professor Frances Frei to train all its managers.
June 7 – Uber gets tough on execs
The company release Uber’s president of business in Asia, Eric Alexander, for his mishandling of a 2014 rape investigation in India.
June 12 – No.2 is no more
Uber’s number 2, and Kalanick’s confidante, Emil Michael leaves the company as part of a top-level exodus following the departures of president and marketing chief Jeff Jones, finance chief Gautam Gupta, and senior vice president of engineering Amit Singhal.
Michael was implicated in the escort / karaoke bar scandal and suggested that Uber dig up dirt on journalists critical of Uber.
June 13 – Holder’s report
Uber release a 13-page report by Eric Holder recommending guidance on a number of topics including alcohol consumption, workplace relationships, and effectively handling complaints. Uber unanimously adopt all the recommendations.
June 14 – Kalanick takes an indefinite leave of absence
Following the death of his mother, Kalanick takes an indefinite leave of absence leaving the company’s day to day operations in the hands of a 14 member committee of senior execs.
In an unrelated matter David Bonderman, venture capitalist and Uber board of directors member, resigns following a sexist remark during an all-staff meeting. Interrupting a speech celebrating the boards ratio of women increasing from 14% to 25% with a ‘joke’ implying that there will be more talking at future meetings.
June 20 – 180 days of change campaign
Uber announces a new campaign to reshape the struggling company’s image. New initiatives such as tipping drivers and adding driver-injury protection insurance is welcomed among staff.
June 21 – Kalanick shown the door
At the request of five investors, Kalanick resigns.
Money where your mouth is
You’re probably thinking this is a fairly in-depth piece to highlight sexual harassment at Uber, and you’re right but there is a reason behind the word count.
The timeline shows an amalgamation of reports, firings, resignations, marketing campaigns and legal undertakings which would have cost Uber millions, and a further few billions in share valuations. Online backlash such as the #deleteUber campaign also saw 500,000 users delete their accounts in just one week.
If you take Fowler’s blog at face value (and considering the legal investigations, 13-page recommendation report, and numerous firings and resignations it would be hard not to) all of this could have been avoided if legitimate concerns brought to the attention of HR would have been treated with the care and attention they deserve. Imagine how much time, effort and money would have been saved had the correct processes been followed and had they undertaken a no-nonsense stance on harassment, be it sexual, racial or gender related.
Equality is the easy part
It may sound condescending but it’s true. Treating all people equally should be the easy part. Making sure that employees are valued on their performance and not their gender, sexual orientation or race is simple. It shouldn’t get to the stage where lawyers are brought in to run reports on workplace culture. You needn’t pay millions investigating reports of harassment, especially when many of those reports, allegedly, were accompanied by hard facts and evidence.
For too long employees have seen HR as being only about the welfare of the employer. If handled correctly, HR should protect the rights of everyone within a business regardless of position.
Sadly, heads needed to roll before changes were made at Uber. But with the company valued at over £60bn, they are afforded the time to implement those changes. Unfortunately, not all companies are as fortunate as Uber. Second, third and fourth chances are unheard of outside multi-billion-pound industry giants. The ones who should know better rarely do, and those that do, rarely get the credit they deserve.
Internal HR departments can be a great tool but if a company is toxic then the spread will infect all. It took more time and effort for Uber to do a bad job than it would have taken for them to do a good one. Had the HR department stood firm and done the role they were in place to do, then the rest of the timeline falls away.
It remains to be seen whether Uber can bounce back from this. One thing that is certain is that they will be under a microscope from this point on, as people wait for the next inevitable addition to the timeline.
You may have read in the news recently about a graduate who had been the recipient of an email that clearly wasn't meant for her in response to an office administrator job application. Nothing out of the blue here you say, people get knocked back for jobs all the time. Below is an excerpt from the email:
“Home educated oddball. Can't get a job since leaving uni. Forages for mushrooms.
"Difficult to assess from her CV - might be very good but equally could be a biscuit short of a packet or a left-wing loon tree hugger.
"Worth an interview if only for a laugh."
Ouch. Understandably, the graduate was upset and did the logical thing, contacting the BBC to express her dismay. She told BBC South East:
“I thought how dare somebody say that about my CV and myself. I was just absolutely furious.”
The company, Tecomak Environmental Services (did they really refer to someone as a tree hugger?) have opened an internal investigation (should be open and shut, just check the sender) and company director, Ross Black, issued the following statement:
“Clearly the comments were informal and not to the high professional standard you would expect from a company like ours. I understand that it must have been upsetting to read the comments and I apologise on behalf of the company and the employees concerned.”
“We genuinely felt your application and CV was interesting and you were shortlisted from a long list of over 40 candidates. We would be more than happy to interview you as one of the strongest candidates that have applied and, if you were to accept an interview, you can be assured that your application will be treated fairly and appropriately.”
The graduate declined the offer of an interview.
What have we learned?
They say that each mistake is an opportunity to learn, so what has this taught us? Don’t put insults in writing? Check emails before sending them? The BBC are running short on news? Graduates have feelings too? All the above?
In all seriousness, no one likes to be told they aren’t good enough, especially when they are made to be the butt of a joke. As a company, Tecomak let themselves down by showcasing a childish side of their business and the people they employ.
On the other hand, the graduate could take this as an opportunity to look at her CV and see where these comments could originate from. Is she a little too personal in parts? Is the CV tailored to the type of role she is applying for?
Representing your business
No matter your role in a business, be it director, manager or admin staff you are always representing the company. From internal emails, to social media posts, anything you write that could be consumed by your customers should be sense checked. If in doubt, don’t send it.
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