Where employers go wrong treating staff

Written by: Adam Bernstein
Published on: 7 Sep 2018


Image © beachboyx10 / Adobe Stock

Employees are a practice’s greatest asset and probably the most expensive, too. So why is it some practices and managers seem hell bent on treating staff so poorly? Why do they create “them and us” divisions without care?

Having a unified and happy workforce is critical to success. Employees can make or break an organisation. Staff don’t have to go the extra mile, they can upset a client base and they will leave for other opportunities, taking both knowledge and customers with them. Any manager worth his or her salt knows recruitment is expensive and disruptive.

Five common causes

Lee Ashwood, a senior associate in the employment department of law firm Eversheds, suggests a number of common causes of employee malcontent.

In his experience, and in no particular order, five key areas of concern exist. He said: “The first is sick pay being withheld in situations where the employer has a discretion over the payment.” This can appear arbitrary.

Next he sees real and sometimes bitter disputes over pay, “in relation to hours worked, what constitutes overtime and, of course, simply not being paid enough in their opinion”. The issue at hand is the web has made salary and pay more transparent and staff consider it their right to be paid the market rate.

Thirdly, and this is a big problem for Mr Ashwood, is inconsistency in treatment. He said: “I’ve seen, on many occasions, situations where an employee feels he or she is always given the worst tasks to complete, has not been allowed time off at short notice when others have in the past or not had the perks others have been given in similar circumstances.”

Fourth on the list is an employee thinking his or her workload is too much or work has not been distributed evenly. The last cause for concern for Ashwood can also fit under the heading of bullying by managers and colleagues1.

Repeated mistakes

So, with the scene set, why do employers make mistakes? Do they misunderstand the law? Do they deliberately ignore the process? Or are they simply failing to appreciate the value and views of their staff? With his lawyer’s hat on, Mr Ashwood thinks making mistakes in not following what the law requires is understandable as it is often complex and not well known.

He added: “However, if you treat staff with empathy and respect, you rarely give them a reason to check to see if you are treating them in accordance with the law. It is not appreciating this point that leads to very common mistakes, which, in turn, lead to disgruntled staff, grievances being raised or, worse, employment tribunal claims.”

And claims are still being made. July 2013 saw the introduction of tribunal fees paid by claimants and, although the number of claims has fallen from 50,000 in the first quarter of 2013 to just more than 17,000 in the fourth quarter of 2015, an employee claim is not something employers should welcome. Indeed, in a March 2015 report in the Daily Mail2, the British Chambers of Commerce estimated the average cost to a business of defending itself at tribunal was £8,500, while the average cost of agreeing a settlement was £5,400.

The most obvious solution to counter discontent is for practices to take time to consider the impact of a decision on an employee, explain the reasons for the decision and listen to any objection the employee may have about the decision.

Understanding employees needs

Moving on, the better employer understands the importance of employee motivation. This logic is noted by Mr Ashwood, who understands every staff member is likely to have different reasons and motivations for coming to work.

He said: “Just because you are solely focused on making your business as profitable as possible and would be prepared to work all hours to do this, does not mean others are, or should be judged negatively because they are not. This means you should not take staff for granted and should tap into what motivates them to improve their performance.”

In simple terms, people work because they are extrinsically or intrinsically motivated. The former is the poorer relation. In essence, it uses bribes to get staff to work harder – pay, holiday or some other reward.

The problem is the efficacy of an extrinsic motivator wanes given time and once the employee becomes disgruntled with the amount of tax charged to the “bribe”. More preferable is the pursuit of intrinsic motivation, where staff do something because they want to do it. It is the very reason why someone will willingly work through his or her lunch hour or will go beyond the call of duty to help a customer.

It appears to be a successful manager that can instil intrinsic motivation in employees and an ability to understand what an employee can do and what he or she likes to do. But it also pays to remember staff bask in the glow of recognition for their efforts. Positive feedback and constructive criticism will do wonders for keeping an individual in a firm with velvet handcuffs.


  1. Evesson J, Oxenbridge S and Taylor D (2015). Seeking better solutions: tackling bullying and ill treatment in Britain’s workplaces, Acas.
  2. Daily Mail (2015). Fees halt £1.6bn gravy train for job tribunals: ‘No win, no fee’ culture among employment lawyers ended by government charges.