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Sports Direct – the Dilemma of Organisational Flexibility

[Text amended August 2018]

Many organisations need flexibility in staffing to accommodate seasonal and other variations in workload, product launches, staff holidays and illness etc. To meet such needs, senior managers should be able to introduce a range of contracts such as variable hours, zero hours, temporary and/or fixed term contracts and/or use agency workers.

The issue is not whether such contracts should exist but whether they are used in a responsible manner.
This is not a new dilemma nor unique to Sports Direct – as can be seen in related articles at the end of this blog article.

Greater Understanding of the Options is Needed – not more Legislation

Although JD Sports is in the headlines, it is not alone.  Further legislation is not the solution but organisations do need:

i) A deeper understanding by operational managers of the range of options that are available to address flexibility of staffing;

ii) The support of senior managers to experiment and learn what mix of arrangements is appropriate for different operations/sites.  Managers should not be hampered by an across the company imposed pattern (which may make life easier for HR staff but not for managers).  Such across the board models may not be cost effective nor meet the real needs of different types of operations such as warehousing, distribution, food and beverage services;

iii) HR managers should be given freedom to devise working arrangements that balance the needs of both operational managers and employees, as far as practicable. Before enlarging the hr team, Sports Direct, or any organisation, should check if it has the appropriate mix of skills and experience in the hr team.   Employing more hr staff will not lead necessarily to more effective staffing patterns but will increase the support costs;

iv) The willingness of senior managers to take action against individual managers and hr staff who can not or will not manage the inevitable grey areas of flexibility which is part of their role.

Redressing the Balance of Flexibility to Meet Operational Needs

The headlines continue to focus on the negative side of flexibility and especially zero hours contracts. The reality is that both public and private sector organisations have need of variable staffing levels although their context will differ.

Managers should consider what options are more suited to their needs.  For example, will some of the following provide an effective way forward in your organisation:

  • zero hours (true casual) workers?

    Picture of the seasonal changes

  • variable/average hours?
  • annualised hours?
  • ?cross trained hour:
  • tradeable hours?
  • agency workers?
  • temporary employees?
  • fixed term or fixed task employees?
  • contractors/self employed?

You can read more about those options in via this link to an earlier article.

Allowing managers and staff to devise what will be appropriate in their context will work effectively if managers approach the issues:

  • with maturity;
  • bearing in mind that individual staff have to pay their way in life and should not be treated as a labour tap to turn on and off at will without regard to the consequences for an individual’s earnings and commitment.

Devising the Mix of Staffing Arrangements

Managers need to ask the following types of questions to determine which options will be appropriate in their circumstances:

  • Why does the fluctuation in staffing needs arise? Are those reasons within the control of the organisation and if so can you reduce the need?
  • Do you need extra staff for certain periods only or more or less across the year?
  • How will you ensure that ‘flexible’ staff are kept up to date with the firm’s operations i.e. that they can pick up the role without the need for retraining because their knowledge is out of date?
  • Can you devise ‘valued’ roles in which individuals are cross trained in other skills/sections so that they can step in when the demand rises (even if that means paying for additional hours)?

Zero hours are still a lawful and useful way of obtaining additional help at short  notice. If it was your partner, son or daughter how would you want him/her to be treated if the work requirement was only a few hours or the demand petered out not long after asking the individual to come in?  Will you pay expenses and/or a minimum flat payment to an individual who is asked to report to work but then attendance is cancelled at short notice i.e. upon arrival or shortly after starting?

It is useful to ask questions such as the above, for any of the contractual options, to check that the contracts will be used responsibly and thus build commitment among the workforce rather than alienate individuals/groups.

Overlooked Safeguards

Confidential information clauses

As a worker may accept work with other employers while under a zero hours arrangement with you, ensure that you have effective clauses covering the use of confidential information obtained whilst in the course of your employment. This also applies to other types of contract.

Self Audit

Allow a group of managers to review the way in which zero hours and other flexible contracts are used to see if there are ways to improve how you meet your ‘staffing’ needs. Encourage those managers to counsel, as a ‘friend’, any managers whose management style is not in tune with the company’s values going forward.

Practical Help and Advice

If you would like to discuss and review your options for more flexible staffing, please contact the author, Jim Harrington, via this link Send Mail or via the contact details on the home page of our website.


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