Staffing issues when practices merge
A growing number of GPs are choosing to merge their practices, which can have significant implications for employees. Camilla Beamish of law firm Cripps explains the importance of anticipating and managing HR and employment risks.
When practices merge they are affected by legislation regarding the treatment of their employees. This dictates that employers must begin a formal information and consultation process with their employees as soon as there is a firm intention to proceed with the merger, it is known as “TUPE”, Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006.
To begin with, planning is key. It is important to establish a timeline for the process that prevents rumour mills from starting. Explaining the reasons for the merger and its benefits will make it more likely that everybody gets on board with the proposal.
Giving employees regular updates throughout the consultation process can help them feel engaged and involved with the decision-making process. Transparency will also ensure the whole process is less daunting, so helping to keep the stress levels in the affected surgeries under control.
Merging practices may result in some overlap in staffing, meaning a restructuring exercise which results in redundancies may be necessary.
There are increased risks involved with terminating the employment of staff as a result of a TUPE transfer, so it is essential that the business case for the redundancies is sound and the employee consultation process is fair and reasonable. In particular, careful thought should be given to redundancy selection pools, which should most likely include individuals from both practices.
Consider whether staff could be redeployed in another role in the enlarged organisation (such as a dedicated HR manager).
The costs of making redundancies should be factored into the overall costs of the merger.
Harmonising Terms and Conditions
Rates of pay and benefits for staff will vary between practices. As part of preparing for a merger, differences in terms and conditions of employment should be identified and a plan put in place to manage them post merger.
TUPE dictates that transferring employees will retain their existing contractual terms and conditions post transfer and that any attempts by employers to vary these terms will be void in most circumstances.
A simple desire to harmonise the terms and conditions of employees from both practices is not, in itself, a permissible reason for varying employees’ contracts and so this can be a particularly problematic area for employers. Getting it wrong can result employment tribunal claims.
Any proposed changes need to be clearly identified and the justification carefully analysed. Extensive consultation with all practice staff is vital. Ideally employers will be able to obtain express written consent from employees agreeing to any changes. If consent cannot be obtained then an employer may be able to bring existing contracts to an end on notice and offer re-employment under the new terms.
This process should be handled very carefully given the enhanced protection that TUPE offers employees in this situation.
This article first appeared in Practice Management.