Q. What are the major People issues that you are currently coming across with your clients?
I would say there are three broad trends I’m seeing at the moment: firstly, there’s lots of redundancy and restructuring going on. We saw an extraordinary hiring spree over Covid as businesses scrambled to secure talent, but now the dust has settled and many of those pandemic jobs have fallen away or just no longer fit the post pandemic, economic reality, for example, companies finding they have too many sales people for their needs. Secondly, particularly with tech start-ups that are growing quickly, the HR infrastructure hasn’t kept pace with the business growth and, as a lawyer, I’m asked to assist with managing the risk that brings. So, a company could have grown quite significantly but might still not have People policies and procedures such as disciplinary processes in place. Another common scenario is that employment contracts have been put in place in an ad hoc and patch-work way leading to confusion and inefficiency for the business. I will help to make sure that appropriate clauses are in place in the right contracts and that these are conformed across a business. These things start to matter more as a business grows, investors expect a more professional approach and managers really need a solid framework to help them deal with staff issues. Finally, I think a trend which is going to be a challenge for employers for some time to come is the interplay between sickness absence/performance and mental health. How do you respond as a business if someone is not performing as you need them to but the reason for this is because they are suffering with their mental health? It’s a very tricky situation and clients are right to be seeking help navigating what can be a very grey and nuanced area which may become a huge drain on internal resources without a proper strategy being put in place.
Q. What are the most common mistakes you see employers making (particularly in the tech sector) when dealing with People issues?
Again, I think there are three main ones: firstly, not dealing with issues soon enough. People issues are hard, so I understand why they often get put in the ‘too difficult’ or ‘too awkward’ pile, but ultimately, burying your head in the sand will make things worse in the long run! Often businesses don’t appreciate how important going through a formal process is until it’s too late. They might try and deal with things informally, with the best of motives, but they leave themselves legally exposed. One good example is the two-year time limit for claiming unfair dismissal. Often it is clear much earlier that things aren’t working out with an employee, but taking action gets put off and put off until the two-year anniversary of employment is fast approaching and there is not enough time to complete the process properly. The second mistake I see quite often is employers being too tolerant of unwanted behaviour. It is so important to be clear about what the company’s values are and how you expect employees to behave. Being vague or allowing someone to believe that their behaviour or performance is acceptable leads to problems. Thirdly, I’ve seen things go badly wrong for employers when they haven’t been transparent with their workforce. No one likes surprises, particularly in smaller companies, it’s really important to keep everyone updated about issues that are likely to affect them and keep the information flowing. This builds trust and helps morale. I believe that fostering good employee relations is as important as keeping on the right side of the law and transparency is a big part of that.
Q. What have you found most challenging when dealing with your clients over the years?
I would say getting clients to understand the importance of the process, and the need to follow it, is often a challenge – particularly when you are dealing with companies which are headquartered overseas, because there is often a cultural issue getting heads around what is required for compliance in the UK. For example, in the USA, the reality of ‘employment at will’ means that processes and procedures can be very alien.
Another perennial challenge is persuading clients to come to us earlier. The tendency is to run things past the lawyers at the end of project or piece of work, in effect, to rubber stamp it. Often there is a financial element to this as well as clients believe they are saving money in this way. In fact, getting us involved sooner rather than later is likely to save money in the long run as we can flag any potential problems and articulate the risks early – we might even be able to suggest a more cost-effective way to do something. I try to impress on my clients that legal services can be a good ‘spend to save’ measure. Of course, some will always be more receptive to this idea than others!
Q. How do employment lawyers add value to fast growing businesses?
At the risk of sounding trite, businesses are only as good as their people, so having an engaged workforce is a crucial element of any business success. Good culture and values underpins the whole business, so it’s really worth investing in this area. If you have the right foundations, your business will be able to grow safely and achieve its aims. Most start ups are unlikely to have an in-house employment law expert (unless they are very lucky) but bringing in the right legal help, at the right time and finding someone who understands your business and your sector could really give you the edge.
Q. If you could offer one piece of advice to fast growing companies, what would it be?
Try not to grow too fast. Make sure everything in your organisation keeps pace with your growth level and don’t gallop ahead without taking the time to get the foundations right. For example, hiring the right people might take some patience but better to get it right first time than rush in and make mistakes that have to be rectified (expensively) later on. Make sure you have the internal infrastructure in place to cope with your growth (procedures, policies, standard documents etc.) and allow knowledge to bed in before moving on too quickly.
Q. What is the most valuable lesson(s) you have learnt in your career?
I’ve worked in the legal sector for over twenty years and I think above all else resilience is the most important quality that you can build to succeed and have a long career. I would say to all junior lawyers out there who may be struggling a bit, don’t let the small things get you down, you will find a way through things which seem daunting at first but don’t waste emotional energy on things that don’t really matter in the long run (very few do!).
Q. What changes have you seen in the legal sector over your career?
Over the years, things have changed enormously. When I started out there were really only two or three career options for any lawyer: a commercial firm in a big city where you would be straight on the partnership path, a much smaller ‘high street’ firm (with shorter working hours but much less prestige) or the Bar. For those who were not able to deal with the long hours of a city firm, they might choose to go in-house after qualification, something that was rather looked down on and from which there was essentially no way back. There were very few alternative paths, no middle ground. I’ve seen the profession diversify greatly since then: there are so many different ways to pursue a legal career now. Firms realise that they will be unable to retain top talent if they fail to look after their people. Alternative business models now offer the opportunity to work part time or flexibly as a consultant, offering much more freedom for those who want it. The profession has also recognised that working in-house is no longer a barrier to returning to private practice and requires its own transferable skills that really help to provide clients with what they want.
Q. Any predictions for the future of the law/law firms/lawyers?
Everyone has been very focused recently on the changes AI will bring to the legal sector– opinions seem to range from the extinction of lawyers to no change at all! We saw during the pandemic how quickly technology can bring about a wholesale change to how we work. Remote working may have been a necessity during that time, but it was only possible because the technology was ready and worked so well. I’m not sure AI is there yet and I’m pretty confident that AI will never replace lawyers altogether. It will hopefully make our lives easier and enable us to do things more quickly (for example discovery of documents or due diligence) and to avoid the labour-intensive work but I think it will also mean we can focus on the more interesting, nuanced, value added services which clients need from us. The law is about personal relationships, building rapport and understanding people’s challenges and aims so you can help them to meet their goals (be that business or personal). A computer is not going to replicate that, but I think there is a place for both and we will find a balance.
Emma Wayland Bio
Emma has nearly 20 years’ experience advising growing businesses on day-to-day employment matters as well as on the people aspects of outsourcing, mergers and acquisitions, restructuring and global projects.
Emma has worked in a variety of sectors, with particular focus on global tech companies, helping them to navigate the legal landscape and make pragmatic decisions that support their business objectives. She takes time to understand culture and ensures all HR legal requirements, contracts, policies and processes reflect and support the business values and growth plans.
When Emma isn’t working (and she has the time) you’ll find her with her horses and competing in eventing.
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