“Duty of Care:  an individual may owe a duty of care to another, to ensure that they do not suffer any unreasonable harm or loss.” Wikipedia

On Friday the President-Elect, Joe Biden, addressed the United States of America.  Given the obvious political and social divide still evident in that great nation, his speech had to be very carefully worded and balanced, and I was particularly struck by this passage;

“My responsibility as president will be to represent the whole nation.  And I want you to know that I’ll work as hard for those who voted against me as those who voted for me, that’s the job, it’s called the duty of care”

And whilst that message is from a President to a different nation, I genuinely believe that this broad approach is relevant to people in more everyday roles on this side of the Atlantic too.

HR’s Duty of Care

Because the sometimes rather nebulous concept of “duty of care” applies to many of us in far less high-profile jobs than that of US President.  And I suspect that Human Resources (HR) professionals often feel particularly exposed to this responsibility at any time, and never more so than when the nation is faced with the triple challenges of a health pandemic, a major economic downturn, and the increasing uncertainty of the nation’s trading relationship with the EU in just 7 weeks’ time.

The above issues have of course forced so many employers to take big – and often distressing – decisions.  Many valued employees have been made redundant since March, many more are on notice of redundancy, and millions of others face an uncertain future at the time of writing.  These are dark and worrying times, and although the longed-for salvation of an effective COVID-19 vaccine may have taken a step closer this week, it’s probably unlikely to make a significant dent in the nation’s fortunes until well into 2021.  So for now the uncertainty and economic downturn continues.

Which leaves many Human Resources professionals with the unpleasant task of continuing to deliver the redundancy process on behalf of their employer.  And this takes us back to the challenges of duty of care.

Two Tribes?

For the reality is that under the current pressures it would be all too easy – and indeed forgivable – for those in HR to overlook their duty of care to all employees within their organisation.

Of course a duty of care to current employees should be a given, but does that not also apply to those that have recently or will shortly be departing as a result of a redundancy process?

Because anyone unfortunate to enough to lose their job in the current uncertain climate might well be faced with multiple challenges, not least how to manage their finances, physical and mental health, how to replace lost workplace insurances, and importantly how to secure another toe-hold on what might be a challenging jobs market for some time to come.

So providing some practical support in these areas might well be a low cost solution that helps employers provide that duty of care to redundant workers too.  Morally that has got to be the right thing to do.

Return on Investment

Yet there are also some very sound business reasons for delivering Redundancy Support to departing employees too.

Given that the driver behind making redundancies is often the need for the employer to survive the economic downturn, it follows that it is also incredibly important that the remaining workforce achieves maximum productivity to assist in this vital objective too.

Now productivity is a rather complex animal, but at the time of writing I can think of no more important factor to productivity success than good employee engagement.  A worker that feels that their employer is caring and supportive – even in these most testing of circumstances – is more likely to “go the extra mile” in terms of their personal output.  And if enough of the workforce do that, then this will certainly help the employer navigate the difficult economic waters still ahead.

And nothing undermines employee engagement more than seeing a departing colleague treated poorly.  It’s one of those moments that can sour workforce relationships for years to come, and is just so damaging at a crucial moment such as now.  Which is why employers would be well advised to do – and be seen to be doing – what they can to smooth the hardship of redundancy for those workers that they have been forced to make redundant.

Return to Normality

Things remain rather dark and uncertain right now, but eventually normality and many of our more familiar employment practices will return.  Until then Human Resources professionals should do all they can to exercise a duty of care to both remaining and departing employees, to ensure that worker goodwill and employer good reputation remains intact.  And of course to maximise productivity too.

It’s also worth remembering that ultimately employers might well want to re-employ some of those workers they were forced to let go this year.  So parting on good terms seems even more important.

I started this article with a quote from the next leader of the free world, I will end with a quote from the other end of recorded history.  Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of the Roman Empire, once said;

“What we do now, echoes in eternity.”

Eternity?  Well perhaps not.  But it’s certainly true that the echoes around employer redundancy decisions can and do last a very long time.  So probably best that you aim to deliver on that duty of care for all.

Steve Herbert is Head of Benefits Strategy at Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing


By Lisa Baker, Senior Editor

Senior Editor Lisa Baker is the owner of Need to See it Publishing Group, providing contract news for business and news sites across the UK. Lisa is an experienced HR writer and commentator, editing HR publications for more than 5 years.