5 ways employers can avoid legal pitfalls during recruitment

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In November, Tesco launched what it claims is the UK’s first recruitment campaign to hire a Christmas Light Untangler for one of its stores in Wrexham.

Sadly, this was a little too far away from my home so I didn’t apply. But I did notice a few points in the job advert that I could use to highlight some of the potential legal pitfalls that can be encountered in recruitment and what steps you can take to avoid them.

Step one: The business case

Tesco’s decision to hire its Christmas Light Untangler apparently arose because research it commissioned showed that people in Wrexham were the most frustrated light untanglers in the UK. Perhaps more typical reasons for hiring are business growth or replacing a leaver. Whatever the reason, employers should be prepared to be flexible and open-minded (for example to requests for flexible working) and avoid unlawful discrimination on the grounds of age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy or maternity, race, religion or belief, gender and sexual orientation.

Step two: The job description

The job description should set out what the successful candidate will need to do in order to fulfil the requirements of the job and the skills required to be able to do it well (also known as the person specification). It can also be used to measure performance in the role once the successful applicant has started the job. Employers should always make sure that none of the requirements for the role unnecessarily and unjustifiably exclude any potential job applicants. The Christmas Light Untangler role is full-time up to Christmas, but why couldn’t it be done by more than one part timer?

Step three: The job advert

Getting the wording right in your job advertisement can be a minefield. A recent job advert on LinkedIn for an IT specialist was widely mocked on Twitter because of the words at the end of the advert “Please note that the position requires filling in the responsibilities of a receptionist, so female candidates are preferred.” Even without such explicitly sexist wording, the way an advert is written may unwittingly put off potential applicants. A 2011 study showed that women are less likely to apply for jobs where the language used in the advert is associated with male stereotypes. The first job requirement in the advert for the Christmas Light Untangler is to “Man… the Christmas Lights Untangling stand”. Now, while the successful candidate for the Christmas Light Untangler role is in fact a woman, gender-neutral wording (such as ‘overseeing’) is always to be recommended, if only to avoid mockery on social media.

Step four: The selection process

Apparently, over 100 people applied for the Christmas Light Untangler role. We do not know how the store decided who to invite to take part in the interview process, but any decision not to interview someone must be non-discriminatory and justifiable. David Brent’s method (avoiding employing unlucky people by throwing half of the CVs in the bin) is not, as far as I know, generally recommended by professional recruiters. Acas in its guide to recruiting staff published in October recommends that sifting should be done by at least two people trained to interview job candidates.

In terms of the interview or assessment centre itself, all candidates should be given equal opportunity to demonstrate their suitability for the role. The Christmas Light Untangler is required to be able to untangle 3 metres of Christmas lights in under 3 minutes and this is easy to measure – get them to do it and time them.  But what if a disabled person applied? As well as having a justification in the business case for why the untangling needs to be done in under 3 minutes, the recruiters will also need to consider making reasonable adjustments to assist disabled candidates.

Step five: The job offer

While the Christmas Light Untangler’s temporary employment is nearly at an end, most organisations when hiring do so with the expectation that the person they have chosen will have a long and happy career with them. The offer letter sets the tone and the key contractual terms. Many contracts of employment include a probationary period, during which the notice period can be very short. Others don’t, as employers know that employees with less than two years’ service do not have the right to claim for ‘ordinary’ unfair dismissal. Some rights, however, are ‘day one’ rights, including the right not to be wrongfully dismissed (ie, in breach of contract). It is important, therefore, to get the terms right at the beginning and, in any event, all employees must be given a written statement of particulars of employment, which must include certain information, within two months of starting employment.

Unlike David Brent or the hapless LinkedIn recruiter, Tesco has been basking in the positive publicity created by its recruitment and selection of the UK’s first Christmas Light Untangler, Anya Mugridge, a student from Nottingham who can untangle 3 metres of Christmas lights in under a minute and a half. If you have trouble with your lights and don’t live near Wrexham, you might like to see Anya the untangler’s top untangling tips –

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