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Riots: employment issues arising

Meredith Hurst Friday, August 12, 2011

In a week that has seen public disorder across the country, many employers will be reeling as the after-effects take hold.  Many employers (particularly in the retail sector) will face repairing damaged premises and employees will have faced disruption to public transport services.  Some employers may even have have to understand how to deal with employees who have been involved in the riots themselves.

As I sat in the office on Tuesday evening I could hear the disruption on Market Street Manchester as it happened whilst a police helicopter circled overhead.  On leaving the office, it was notable that the entire public transport network (buses and trams) had evacuated the city centre leaving many people to walk home or get taxis.  This continued into Wednesday and Thursday this week with services limited but thankfully this is now back to normal.

If employees are unable to get into work then the employer has a number of options to consider.  Does it deduct pay, discipline staff for non-attendance, or adopt a different approach?  Whilst the contract of employment will sometimes make provision for this eventuality, it is unlikely to make specific provision for absence in severe circumstances such as riot disruption.  The contract may also provide for the ability to make deductions from wages in certain circumstances although this is likely to be limited to issues arising at the end of employment. 

Instead it might be reasonable to allow staff to work from home, or, where this is not possible, allow staff to use their annual leave rather than imposing disciplinary sanctions upon them.  The same considerations apply when severe weather conditions hit.

It may be a different story for those employers unlucky enough to employ someone involved in the riots.  As a number of suspects go through the process of arrest and court attendance, absence may be considered unauthorised unless the employee seeks leave to have to time away from work, either on an unpaid basis, or as part of annual leave entitlement. 

Of course, those found to have been involved in the looting may properly face disciplinary action.  Usually an employer would be reasonable in dismissing an employee whose conduct outside the workplace affected that person's ability to do their job.  For example, an employer may be within its rights to dismiss a lorry driver convicted of a drink driving offence, given that he is unable to carry out the basic functions of job.  The employer may have to consider whether it can offer alternative employment first. 

Even where the conduct does not affect the person's ability to work, it may still be reasonable to dismiss the employee, if the employer is satisfied that the employee has brought the employer into disrepute by association.         

Please tell us about your experiences either during or following the troubles and any views you may have about dealing with any of the problems outlined above.

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