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Are big companies really better at looking after their people?

Tracy Carpenter: Human Resources Consultant: 11th July 2018

 As an HR professional, I've overseen countless numbers of disciplinaries and dismissals acting on behalf of companies to get the right result for their business. But life sometimes throws you curveballs in the world of HR, and in my caseload is an interesting case where I am sat on the other side of the desk representing an employee in an appeal process.

Not only is this a change of pace, but having been working with SMEs for most of the last decade, it's come as something of a surprise to find a major corporations HR procedures to be thoroughly unsatisfactory.

You've probably heard the theory that big companies are better at looking after their people. After all, they've commonly got access to legal advice, a big HR department, and programs for training and supporting their employees. Pretty much everything is going in their favour.

Normally, any allegation of such seriousness is to be handled with the utmost caution. A thorough investigation should be carried out. There should be disclosure of evidence and absolute confidentiality.

A badly-handled disciplinary...

The case is ongoing, so I can't divulge the exact details, but it's been a real eye-opener to discover just how wrong this view can be in even what should be a straightforward disciplinary process.

The case began when an employee blew the whistle on their manager. They discovered that hours and holidays were being fiddled and underhand tactics being used to maximise the manager's own sales-based bonuses. It also appeared that the manager's close friend was involved in the same activities.

My client blew the whistle to management higher up the food chain and notices of investigatory hearings were issued. Having faced their disciplinary the manager resigned — tacitly admitting their wrongdoing.

It was much to my client's surprise then to find themselves called in for a disciplinary hearing. The people on whom they had blown the whistle had raised a counter-accusation against them alleging that my client had been engaging in the same fraudulent practices as well.

Normally, any allegation of such seriousness is to be handled with the utmost caution. A thorough investigation should be carried out. There should be disclosure of evidence and absolute confidentiality.

In this case, all these matters were lacking. In my professional opinion. Only the individuals who had been accused were interviewed. It was implied that others had been questioned but their statements werent provided. My client entered underprepared, underinformed and underrepresented at the hearing. And worse still: they were dismissed.

As the person in question is a close friend, I have taken on their case to argue that the dismissal is unfair. At this stage, we are appealing against the dismissal in its entirety, but I already feel the possibility of an industrial tribunal is near at hand. The tribunal system is the court of last resort in these cases, and is expensive and time-consuming for all parties, so it is never something to be approached lightly. Most companies pay a lot of attention to their disciplinaries because at the most basic level it is much cheaper to do things properly once. This is why it is such a surprise to find this company's practices have been so lacking in this case.

What went wrong?

So what in particular, in my view, has been done wrong?

  • They did not disclose any evidence to support the allegations, apart from the counter-accusations from people on whom my client had blown the whistle.
  • No verbatim notes or recordings were taken during the meeting meaning one and half hours were reduced to seven pages. In my experience, such a meeting would routinely generate twenty or more pages.
  • Unreasonable deadlines were set for responses especially when they were issued via post, leaving little to no time to prepare adequate rebuttal.
  • Claims that certain evidence could not be disclosed for spurious reasons such as GDPR even though, other information was provided which contained personal information.
  • A denial for the request to external representation, and meetings to be held at the company's premises — leaving my client in the position of facing a hostile emotional environment without anyone neutral to guide them.
  • They didn't use a common sense approach. Did they have a reasonable belief that my client, would carry out fraudulent behaviour, leave evidence to support such fraudulent behaviour then draw attention this this by blowing the whistle? At what point do you sit back and think: "really would someone do this?"

I could go on, but these items represent the general tenor of the company's approach, which has been to assume guilt and ask for proof of innocence, rather than a truly consensual approach to establish the truth.

So why has this case been handled so badly? My guess is that it is because of the nature of the business. It is a large, national company, with several thousand employees. Many of those employees are hired and paid on a performance basis, so it's likely that the average employee lifetime is a little shorter than in other kinds of role.

It is possible that because of its size the company simply handles a lot of disciplinaries, and over time has let its practices become lax because most employees dont put up a fight, but accept their disciplinaries and move on or move out.

Like people, companies learn from experience, and it may be that after a few similar cases the company has come to the assumption that they dont need to do the hard miles necessary to perform an effective and fair investigation process.

So the next time you hear the old refrain that bigger companies are better for their employees, just keep a sceptical ear open.

Takeaways for small business

Being small can work in your favour. You can offer a much more personal approach to your employees. Even if you can't compete on terms of salary, you should be in a position to respond a lot more flexibly to individual circumstances.

But whatever the size of your business, proper procedure is absolutely critical in handling grievances or disciplinary matters. Fail to follow a fair, thorough process, and you could find yourself facing the prospect of a tribual hearing. Some estimates place the average cost of defending yourself at tribunal at up to £15,000 — so the benefit of doing things right first time should be obvious.

And naturally that leads me to my last point: unless you are well-practised, and have all your ducks in a row, you should bring in expert help to make sure everything is done properly to avoid the chance of repercussions further down the line.

More articles about HR issues can be found here, but follow me on LinkedIn for more regular (and less formal!) updates :-)