Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Socks, gags, and red tape

A number of MPs and journalists have been getting quite excited recently about what they like to call “gagging clauses” in the agreements under which some public sector employees – notably in the health service – have left their posts.  The suspicion is that, ungagged, the ex-employees concerned would have some juicy stories to tell.
I suspect reality is rather more mundane than that.  What are more properly called “compromise agreements” are not unique to the public sector in any event; and buying the silence of those with whom they are made is rarely – if ever – the main objective (although it would be hard to draw that conclusion from the press coverage).
They are, rather, an attempt to short-circuit the processes which employees who might feel their dismissal to be unfair could otherwise follow, including of course employment tribunals.  Pay people enough, the theory goes, and you can sack them for any reason you like – even the colour of their socks. 
From the employer’s point of view it avoids the hassle and bother of the legal processes.  That’s what some of the same people condemning the practice might otherwise call “red tape” – that’s certainly a label which has been placed on the process by Tory MPs and ministers in the past.  There’s a certain amount of irony in seeing some of that party’s MPs being so vocal about the practice, given that background.
The “gagging” part is usually incidental.  Is it necessary?  In almost all cases, probably not.  Staff offered such an agreement don’t have to accept it, of course – if they do so it’s probably because they think it’s a better deal than they’d otherwise get.  Having left by “mutual consent” looks better on the CV than having been sacked.
On the other hand, if any employer really had sacked someone because they didn’t like the colour of the socks, I suppose that they probably would prefer that not to come out…

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