InsightsInsight - Employment & HR - POSTED: July 28 2021
Are you legally obliged to make your employees happy?
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The short answer is no. Or at least, not yet.
This may come as a surprise to those employers who are experiencing an increase in the number of employees who believe it is their employer’s responsibility to make them happy.
In a survey we ran in our latest Brachers Bitesize webinar, ‘Is employee wellbeing a legal compliance issue?‘, 70% of attendees felt that some employees act as though they have a legal right to be happy in their work.
Maintaining employee wellbeing and happiness has many varied and important benefits for employers’ businesses and operations but as I explore in this blog, is it really your legal duty as an employer to make your employees happy?
Your legal duty as an employer
The majority of implied and statutory duties on employers are about safety and protection from harm or from harassment or unacceptable behaviour. They are not in themselves about promoting happiness. It is also notable that most of these duties are to take reasonable steps or do what is reasonable, and not what is preferable, perfect or personally ideal, for each employee.
The closest we get in employment law terms to a happiness obligation is the often quoted (by employees against employers) implied duty of mutual trust and confidence.
This duty states that an employer must not, without reasonable and proper cause, conduct itself in a manner calculated or likely to destroy or seriously damage the relationship of trust and confidence between employer and employee.
This falls a long way short of a legal duty to make employees happy. In fact, it permits many actions which will likely make them unhappy. For example, demotion with good cause (and the contractual right to do so) will rarely create employee satisfaction, but nonetheless is lawful.
Perhaps the closest we have come to the courts recognising a duty of happiness rather than safety is a finding that employees are entitled to dignity and self-esteem in the workplace.
So, in that case, an aggressive and abusive management style which impacted on the employee’s self-esteem and dignity at work is unacceptable, even if it is the norm in that industry. But even this is a much lower bar than the concept of happiness.
The duty of mutual of trust and confidence and the related implied employment duties on employers to, for example, take reasonable steps to provide a safe and healthy workplace, to provide reasonable support and to not act capriciously or arbitrarily in matter of pay, are, however, ever-evolving. They move with the times.
What was considered acceptable and reasonable for an employer to do to meet these duties in say, the 1970’s, would be different to how a court would most likely assess matters today. This is no bad thing.
These duties are judged objectively which means that as societal expectations develop and change over time, so can the scope and range of the expectations these duties can place on employers.
That said, I do not think we will ever see a duty to make employees happy, as, in a strictly legal context, this is not one of the core purposes of the employment relationship.
Employers should, however, be mindful, particularly as we enter a difficult time for recruiting and retaining staff, that many employees or prospective employees will view their wellbeing, benefits and work life balance as important factors in determining who they wish to work for.
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