How to do HR (well!) without an HR Manager – a few tips…

Hannah Roche - Partner - MBM
Taking on employees for the first time is a big milestone for any company. Building a business which has been able to create employment and attract talented individuals is something to be really proud of. Of course, employing people is also a bit of a learning curve for many small businesses. There are all sorts of things to do – “speccing out” the job, recruiting, setting up payroll, HMRC registration and issuing appropriate contracts of employment, to name but a few. But when the dust has settled and you’ve got a team working for you, how do you ensure you’re managing the working relationships well, especially if you don’t have an HR Manager?

At MBM Commercial, via our unlimited HR and employment law advice service Holistic HR, we have a great deal of experience in helping small, high-growth businesses which do not have the benefit of internal HR support. And you can bet that the particular HR challenges that you face are largely the same as those faced by the majority of our Holistic HR clients. We’ve jotted down a few tips that will hopefully help you in your journey to becoming an employer of choice!

1. Make use of probationary periods

Most contracts of employment will include a provision for a probationary period, usually 6 months. The probation meeting, which should be held a month or so before the end of the probationary period, is a great opportunity to check in with your new employee at a point when they’ve got to grips with what the job entails and ensure that their expectations, and yours, are being met. It’s a chance for employer and employee to exchange feedback and to make any changes that might be necessary. If things are going well, it’s a good time to thank your new employee for their hard work, celebrate their achievements and agree on their priorities going forward. If things could be improved, it’s the optimal time to put them right before matters escalate and it may be appropriate to extend the probation period if the contract allows. If the new employee is not working out and the chances of improvement are slim, the probationary period gives the employer the opportunity to part company with the employee, usually with minimal legal risk (assuming there are no discrimination or whistle-blowing issues). Often the notice period during the probationary period is one week, so neither the employer nor the employee is tied in for a lengthy period if the relationship has just not worked out in the way the parties had hoped for. Our advice? Ensure contracts of employment include a probation clause, ensure you diarise the probationary expiry date and that you hold the probation meeting in good time before this date. When an employee successfully completes a probation period, confirm this in writing to them.

2. Workplace Policies

When you’re starting out or you only have a few employees, the need for a comprehensive set of workplace policies or an employee handbook is probably quite limited. When there are small numbers of employees, you can usually work out amongst yourselves when holidays can be taken or how much is appropriate to spend on a hotel when you’re on a work trip. But as your employee numbers grow, it becomes more important to put systems and policies in place (such as a holiday policy and an expenses policy), and apply them consistently. Then, if you’re asked what the company’s policy is in relation to, say, maternity pay, you can give an immediate answer. Or, when an full-time employee asks to work part-time, you have a written procedure of how to handle the request which is fair to both employer and employee. If things get difficult and one employee raises a complaint against another, your grievance procedure will give guidance about how to deal with the person making the complaint and your disciplinary procedure will set out how to handle the person complained of, if the allegations against them are credible. Our advice? Put a comprehensive set of policies in place as soon as you can, tailor them to suit your company culture and values, ensure that they are non-contractual in effect (so that they can be easily changed), ensure they are adequately communicated to staff, consistently applied and keep them under review, developing and adapting them as you grow.

3. Continuous Feedback

Good communication is key to any healthy relationship and it’s no different for the employment relationship. Whilst it’s difficult when you’re getting a business up and running, try to find time to catch up with your team. Regular discussions will let you know how they’re getting on with the job, their colleagues, any challenges they’re facing, their career goals, where they need help and the areas that they need to develop in. These discussions don’t need to be formal, and often the conversation is more constructive if they’re not. Of course, it’s good HR practice to have formal performance reviews once or twice a year to measure progress, decide on salary increases, promotion and bonus awards etc (as well as gathering feedback from the employee on how they feel about their job, the company, and their prospects and whether anything needs to change). However, an employee shouldn’t be hearing any negative feedback at a formal performance review that they haven’t heard before – it should not be a surprise, as an employee has a right to expect that if they are not delivering to the level expected, this should be addressed by their employer at the time, with a view to helping the employee improve to a satisfactory level. Our advice? As well as having a consistent performance review procedure in place, make time for regular, frequent catch up meetings with staff.

4. Deal with awkward situations head on

Providing employment is a privilege but not every employment relationship will work out. As much as it can be a great feeling to offer a job to an enthusiastic candidate, the reverse is true when you have to let someone go. Running a company involves making difficult decisions which are in the best interests of your business, and those of your other employees and shareholders. Probationary periods, giving continuous feedback and performance reviews can help to identify problems and will assist you in deciding whether measures can be put in place to help the situation improve or whether it’s time to part company with an employee. So, if you have an under-performing employee or an employee with an attitude that does not fit with your company values, address it with them quickly, professionally and fairly, ensuring that you follow the correct procedures, genuinely listen to any mitigation they might have and consider your decision on the outcome carefully. Often you will need HR/legal advice before making a decision. Generally, this advice will come at a cost but, with the right advice, you will save money in the long run by avoiding litigation and the matter can be dealt with quickly and with minimum fuss.

5. Champion employee well-being

We live in a fast-paced, highly pressured, ever changing work world, and this is particularly the case in young companies. You and your team need to build a business, raise capital, keep investors happy, develop your product or services, find and attract customers, deliver to a high standard, remain financially viable and carry out the countless and varied activities that come with running a high-growth business. This can be really exciting, fulfilling and rewarding. It can also be relentless and stressful. If stress in the workplace is allowed to build without being managed, as well as the risk of losing employees, it can lead to high absenteeism, employment claims and a team with poor physical and mental health, which is clearly bad for your team and also your company’s bottom line. There are many ways to help your team (and you!) manage stress in the workplace and not all of them have to cost a lot. Consider putting a well-being charter and plan in place which lets employees know that you take their health seriously. The charter should set out your commitment to staff: encourage them to talk to a trusted colleague or line manager about problems, to ask for help, to make use of any flexible working policies you have (e.g. working from home), encourage healthy lifestyle choices – keeping active, taking “brain breaks” and lunchtime walks, to eat well, to avoid their work email in the evenings and weekends, to get involved in charitable endeavours and enjoy hobbies, sports and pass-times. Your well-being plan should include all the things your business does to promote the well-being of your staff. From digital detox training to a weekly fruit day, from private medical insurance to staff nights out, from a staff football team to beer-fridge Friday, from flexible working schemes to helping employees set boundaries with demanding customers: all of these things play a part in creating a safe and healthy environment where people are able to fulfil their potential and flourish. And what could be better for a growing business than that??

MBM Commercial’s Holistic HR service can help businesses with contracts of employment and work place policies as well giving commercial and pragmatic HR and employment law advice for a competitive, fixed, annual fee. We’re delighted to offer EIE cohorts a discount on our usual fees (available to the 2020 Cohort from the password protected Bootcamp webpage).