Asos: A Contractual nightmare?

Fashion giant, Asos has found itself hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons after an investigation by BuzzFeed News revealed that workers at its Barnsley warehouse had made allegations of appalling mistreatment. As one worker put it, “management treat people like slaves.”

As part of the investigation BuzzFeed interviewed workers as well as reviewing internal documents and correspondence. The evidence revealed (amongst other things) allegations that staff were subject to intrusive spot checks, discouraged from drinking water or using the toilet and that they were disproportionately penalised for turning up late. Workers also alleged that they were working under “exploitative contracts” which allowed for them to have assignments ended without notice, to be sent home without pay, or to be told not to come in if management simply decided to cancel their shift.

Asos and logistics company XPO (which runs the Barnsley warehouse) strongly refute the allegations and Asos has even gone as far as to publish a list of its policies and procedures in response to the claims.

Whilst the accuracy of the allegations are not yet known, the case highlights the importance of ensuring effective communications with employees and the potential pitfalls for those employers who don’t.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible for employers to get things right all of the time and inevitably problems in the workplace will arise. The manner in which employers deal with such problems is therefore key. It will generally always be in the employer’s interest to deal effectively with any complaints at an early stage and most importantly, internally. If they don’t, they may find themselves faced with an Employment Tribunal claim which brings with it significant cost and reputational damage. Even in the absence of a Tribunal claim, disgruntled workers are often tempted to vent publically their concerns or grievances on social media or on the internet more generally. This can have disastrous consequences.

As a starting point, employers should ensure that they have written policies and procedures in place so that workers fully understand their rights and responsibilities. Core policies in respect of grievances, whistleblowing and anti-harassment and bullying should set out clearly how employees can raise concerns and how such complaints will be dealt with. Encouraging employees to raise matters informally in the first instance can be an effective way of allowing workers to engage in open conversations, unrestrained by the bureaucracies of a formal procedure. However, employers should bear in mind that sometimes a more formal route will be appropriate. It’s important to make clear in the policies that concerns will be dealt with sensitively and confidentially (as far as possible) and that workers won’t suffer any form of victimization or retaliation so as not to deter workers from raising concerns. That being said, and as demonstrated in the Asos case, policies and procedures alone are unlikely to be effective; it is therefore critical that employers take steps to communicate the terms to workers and make sure that they are being followed in practice.

Having regular appraisals or performance reviews with workers is also likely to encourage open discussions. Employers may consider encouraging 360 degree feedback so that in addition to the standard downwards feedback, workers are given the opportunity to feed back on their superiors and their employment more generally. This can go a long way to unearth any concerns amongst the workforce and may have prevented such a public airing of them, as in the Asos case.