For many employers it's appealing to hold executives to higher standards of behaviour, but risks and pitfalls abound in applying inconsistent workplace policies, a lawyer says.

It can be "extremely difficult" to manage poorly behaving senior executives, not least because employees might be too scared to make a complaint for fear of repercussions, Hall & Wilcox senior associate Clare Kerley tells an HR Daily Premium webcast.

Employers therefore need proper, thorough complaints management procedures that aren't too prescriptive, as "you don't want to lock yourself into a certain course of action", she says.

Properly drafted policies are vital to enforcing these procedures, and Kerley says there are pros and cons to having separate documents in place.

She understands that employers might want to hold executives to a higher standard, but notes that courts and tribunals generally already take seniority into account when considering workplace misbehaviour.

One downside to having separate policies for executives is confusion: it can cause employees think there's a higher threshold to meet when making a complaint against a senior figure.

Another is that separate policies risk being classified as indirect discrimination because they treat a group of employees differently based on their status, Kerley says.

Drafting multiple policies could help avoid overcomplicating a single workplace policy, she notes, but ultimately, the balance weighs in favour of having consistent policies and treating all employees equally.

"It allows employees to develop expectations about how their complaints will be managed."

An alternative to having separate policies, Kerley says, is to include in senior executives' employment contracts a list of conduct that only applies to them. This might comprise specific references to values and behaviours, probation periods, and focusing on cultural fit.

Considerations when managing misbehaviour

When considering how to appropriately deal with misbehaving executives, Kerley says HR professionals should take into account:

  • Do employees know about the organisation's complaints procedure, and is it clearly documented and accessible to them?
  • Does the complaints procedure offer both informal and formal options for solving an issue?
  • Does it offer employees confidentiality?
  • Are employees able to contact trained personnel who know how to handle their concerns?
  • Does the procedure set out clear investigation processes?
  • Does it assure employees that no one will be victimised or disadvantaged for making a complaint? "Really stressing that one to the employees is important in actually hearing about these complaints in the first place," Kerley says.
  • Is the procedure regularly reviewed to ensure it is up to date and effective?

Watch the webcast for more on handling complaints against senior staff, issues when managing star performers and power imbalances, and more – upgrade here if you're not a premium member.