Article:

The Power of the Pen

15 August 2017

Kimberly McKay, Human Resource Consultant |

We talk about the pen being mightier than the sword. Of course these days it wouldn’t be a pen it would be a keyboard, but it’s the same notion of the power of the written word.

We in HR are sometimes accused of being bureaucratic pen-pushers, smothering people in layers of agreements, letters, forms and file notes. Naturally we have embraced technology and much of this red tape is now on-line; but it’s still there. We can just produce more, faster, with very attractive graphics and whizz-bang hyperlinks and whip it through cyber space to lots of people simultaneously, clogging up in boxes with gay abandon and polluting the clouds with cyber junk. Luckily New Zealand has the long white cloud to store all this stuff.

I accept that we can get overly pedantic about HR record keeping but there is method in this madness. If you are too far along the continuum towards no records, and many small employers are, you leave yourself very exposed to unpleasant consequences such as:

  • Fines for breaches of legislation
  • Wage arrears claims
  • Personal grievances

It is concerning to still hear of employers that don’t have written employment agreements at all, or don’t have them for certain groups of staff such as casual or seasonal workers. This is the most basic legal requirement and the foundation of the employment relationship. Not only does it provide legal compliance but protects both parties by confirming the terms you have agreed to work by. If you have agreements in place it is important to review these regularly to ensure you keep pace with legislative change and minimum entitlements.

The other important area of compliance is ensuring you keep thorough wage and time records which are sufficient to confirm that you are meeting minimum requirements, both in relation to wages and also holiday entitlements. 

Government agencies do enforce these requirements and particularly regions like Hawke’s Bay with heavy reliance on seasonal workers can be subject to scrutiny from IRD, MBIE and NZ Immigration.

If you have a dispute, a claim or an audit you will need to prove your version of the facts with hard evidence – usually documents. This is the moment when you really wish you had done the dreaded paperwork. For small employers this may seem daunting but it doesn’t have to be complicated. Get your basic essentials sorted which are written employment agreements for all employees and adequate payroll records. Then when stuff happens with staff, as it inevitably will, write it down:

  • Record any changes to terms of employment such as hours, pay, duties
  • Keep notes of discussions about performance
  • Document disciplinary action such as warnings
  • Record discussions about restructuring and changes to roles
  • Plus keep your documentation up to date with changes in legislation

When an issue arises, if you are not able to confirm that things were discussed, or agreed, and that the correct process was followed you are vulnerable and it can be costly.

In small teams there is generally less formality as you would expect, and most issues are dealt with in person. This is ideal for reaching understanding and agreement but not helpful when down the track the details need to be confirmed. Recollections can be inaccurate and things can be re-interpreted through a different lens based on subsequent events. A representative or support person can put a very different spin on discussions and agreements that both parties were quite happy with at the time.

Depending on the situation, your records don’t necessarily have to be formal letters – an email, a diary note, a note in an app or on-line appraisal system for example, are equally valid. These don’t have to be lengthy and they can be written in plain language rather than legal technicalities. However, if you are unsure or there is an element of risk involved take advice about the records you need to have in place.