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How can Employers avoid conflict and potential discrimination claims when workplace social distancing rules are eased?

Employers will be need to adopt a common sense and flexible approach if they are to avoid unnecessary conflict in the workplace and potential discrimination claims

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The Government is expected to announce this week that employers will no longer need to follow social distancing guidelines, including the wearing of facemasks in the workplace and the requirement to work from home.

Employers will be need to adopt a common sense and flexible approach if they are to avoid unnecessary conflict in the workplace and potential discrimination claims, says the Collyer Bristow employment team.

Daniel Zona, an Associate in the Employment team comments:

Businesses welcome the easing of restrictions. But they also know that relaxation is likely to create flashpoints in the workplace that will need to be managed. How, for example, should employers respond to staff who wish to continue to work from home? Or to staff who refuse to wear face masks when required to do so? Or to staff who feel uncomfortable when colleagues choose not to wear face masks in the workplace?”

The lifting of Covid restrictions does not reduce an employer’s legal duty to safeguard the health, safety and wellbeing of their employees, so policies which are too vague or lax may be in breach of this duty. On the other hand, policies which are too one dimensional or restrictive may well be discriminatory and unenforceable.

“In the case of face masks”, adds Daniel Zona, “employers are likely to (but are not required to) give staff the choice of whether masks are worn or not – perhaps requiring staff to wear face coverings in certain roles – for example, in customer facing positions like hospitality and transport.”

Policies should reflect the requirements of the particular workplace and feedback and should be actively sought from staff as part of the policy development process if the risk of disputes is to be minimised.

The same principles apply to flexible working policies. Given that with recent advances in technology many employees can now work very effectively from home, employers will find it more difficult to refuse requests to work from home for at least part of the week, and the number of such requests is likely to rise.

“A common sense approach that balances the needs of the business with the circumstances of the individual and is consistent, transparent, and fair is likely to be the best approach” says Daniel Zona.

“It should also be remembered” adds Partner, Andrew Granger, “that both employers and staff have, over the past two years, shown great adaptability, ingenuity and fortitude when faced with dramatic levels of change. These qualities will still be very important if the transition to a new world of work is to be achieved in a largely consensual, legally compliant and conflict free environment.”

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Andrew Granger

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andrew.granger@collyerbristow.com



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