With Northern Ireland experiencing one of its hottest summers for some considerable time, the warm temperatures can leave employees wishing they were heading to the beach, rather than the office. This prolonged spell of unusually good weather can throw up a number of employment law related headaches for employers.
1. How hot is too hot?
In short, there is no maximum workplace temperature. Under the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1993 the temperature in indoor workplaces during working hours should be “reasonable”. Reasonableness is a somewhat elastic concept, but in general terms it should be assessed according to the type of work being carried out by the employees and in conjunction with the employer’s general obligations to provide a safe workplace under health and safety law.
2. An influx of annual leave requests
Workers have the right to a minimum of 5.6 weeks’ paid annual leave per year. This amounts to 28 days per year for a full time member of staff. Whilst all workers have the right to a minimum amount of annual leave, they do not have an absolute right to avail of this leave when they please. Employers should ensure that they outline the method by which annual leave approval should be sought and the period of notice required to take annual leave in a company handbook which should be provided to all staff. During the summer months, employers may be faced with competing requests for annual leave and this can cause difficulties in trying to balance the needs of the business with keeping staff happy. It is perfectly legitimate for employers to refuse to allow staff to take annual leave at certain times eg during exceptionally busy periods or where there are already a number of other employees on annual leave at the same time. However, employers should ensure that they approach annual leave requests and the granting or refusal of these requests in a reasonable, consistent and non-discriminatory manner.
3. Relaxation of the company dress code
Employers should ensure that their company handbook sets out the dress code which staff are expected to adhere to, whether this be generally appropriate office attire or even a company uniform. Whilst there is no legal obligation to do so, during spells of particularly warm weather, employers may wish to consider relaxing the dress code. This can make employees more comfortable and may even improve productivity and morale. The extent to which the dress code may be relaxed will of course depend on the nature of the business and how “customer-facing” the work environment is. It should be made clear to all staff that any relaxation of the dress code is a temporary measure for a specific reason and is not a licence for the employees to simply “wear what they want”. Employers are still entitled to request minimum standards of appearance and to ensure that shoes and clothing are sensible and in keeping with health and safety considerations.
In dealing with all of these issues, consistency is key and employers should ensure that employee requests are dealt with in a fair and non-discriminatory manner. It is also important that clear policies and procedures are in place in the first instance to deal with matters such as dress codes and annual leave requests in the ordinary course of events, and that whilst modifications or concessions may be made in exceptional circumstances, that there are still clear limits on what is acceptable workplace conduct.
Katie Buchanan is a solicitor in Worthingtons’ Belfast office, specialising in Employment Law. Katie regularly drafts and reviews contracts of employment and company handbooks on behalf of employers. Katie can be contacted on 02890434015 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org