How Far Can You Stretch Employees?

How Far Can You Stretch Employees?

How Far Can You Stretch Employees?

Article by John Botha

In the rapidly evolving landscape of the modern workplace, employers are increasingly faced with the challenge of ensuring their workforce remains competent and adaptable. This challenge is particularly pronounced in the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and the VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity) world, where the pace of change is relentless. Employers must navigate the delicate balance between operational requirements and the legal and ethical considerations of employee management.

Understanding the Legal Framework

In South Africa, the Labour Relations Act (LRA) provides a legal framework that guides employer-employee relationships. Two key provisions are particularly relevant:

Unfair Labour Practice: Section 186(2) of the LRA defines an unfair labour practice as any arbitrary action concerning promotion, demotion, training, or provision of benefits, among other employment aspects. This clause protects employees from capricious decisions that could adversely affect their employment status.
Operational Requirements: Section 189 recognises that organisations may need to restructure due to changing operational requirements, which could lead to job adaptations or eliminations. This section outlines the process for consultation and fair treatment when such changes are necessary.
Contractual Considerations

A well-crafted employment contract can serve as a cornerstone for managing changes in employment terms. A forward-looking clause might read:

“Importantly, the Employee is aware of, understands, and accepts that the employment relationship in the disruptive environment of the 4IR and other business disruptors that impact operational requirements means that this appointment does not translate into an inflexible contract of indefinite employment on the current terms set out herein. The Company reserves the right to make changes as required by its operations in terms of the provisions of law. This includes requiring the employee to learn new skills, accept transfers to other required positions or departments, conduct hybrid forms of work, and the like.”

Such a clause empowers the employer to implement necessary changes while remaining within the bounds of the law.

When to Consult and Adapt

The question arises: when must an employer consult and follow a fair operational requirements process, and when is it an implied term that employees must adapt? The answer lies in the nature of the changes:

Minor Adjustments: For changes that do not significantly alter core employment terms, it may be sufficient for the employer to rely on the flexibility clause in the employment contract.
Major Changes: If the changes affect core terms, such as a significant career path shift, geographical relocation, or extensive retraining, the employer should invoke Section 189’s provisions or undertake a structured skills development needs analysis followed by training.
Dealing with Resistance

If an employee is unable or unwilling to adapt, the employer must ensure that any actions taken are procedurally and substantively fair. This approach will help mitigate against claims of unfair labour practices or unfair dismissals.

The Role of Recruitment

In anticipation of future changes, employers should focus on recruiting individuals with foundational skills such as emotional intelligence (EQ), cognitive flexibility, digital intelligence, and adaptability. These competencies are crucial for thriving in a disruptive work environment.

This article aims to provide a broad overview of the legal and ethical considerations when stretching employees’ competencies and job scopes. It is essential for employers to stay informed and seek legal advice to navigate these complex issues effectively. Remember, the goal is to foster a resilient and agile workforce that can grow with the company while respecting individual rights and the rule of law.

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