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What role should HR play in safeguarding?

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Safeguarding is already embedded in educational settings like schools, but any sector conducting regulated activity has legal obligations to comply with safeguarding legislation. For HR professionals in particular, their role in preventing issues, managing incidents, and embedding good practice should never be underestimated.

Fundamental principles of safeguarding

According to the Care Quality Commission (CQC), safeguarding involves “protecting people’s health, wellbeing, and human rights, and enabling them to live free from harm, abuse and neglect”. In an HR context, this refers to anyone under the age of 18, as well as adults who are considered vulnerable or at risk.

There are five key safeguarding principles that, broadly speaking, apply to any sector or activity in which safeguarding is relevant. These are: Recognise, Respond, Record, Report, and Refer.

  1. Recognise: Spotting the signs of potential safeguarding issues is crucial to preventing more serious incidents, and training should be provided to help all staff recognise red flags.
  2. Respond: Whether an issue is disclosed or suspected, knowing what to do next is vital to preventing further harm, and ensuring any relevant evidence is preserved.
  3. Record: Everything from initial reports to serious incidents should be recorded securely and centrally, along with any actions taken, key dates, and relevant outcomes.
  4. Report: Closed cultures are fertile ground for safeguarding issues. Increasing accountability and transparency encourages greater buy-in of safeguarding practice across a business, and ultimately leads to improvements that benefit everyone.
  5. Refer: Engaging proactively with external organisations, such as local authorities or law enforcement, is vital to taking appropriate action as quickly as possible.

Does safeguarding legally apply to you?

Any activity defined as a ‘regulated activity’, according to the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006, carries legal safeguarding obligations. Its definition varies depending on whether the activity relates to children and young people, or adults considered vulnerable (something the Act also defines).

Broadly speaking, regulated activity relating to adults sits within one of six categories: providing health care; providing personal care; providing social work; assistance with general household matters; assisting in the conduct of a person’s own affairs; and conveying (i.e. transporting a person from one place to another).

Deciding whether safeguarding legally applies to a business is complex and nuanced, with many exceptions and exclusions. Seeking advice and ensuring compliance with safeguarding regulations as a default are always the safest approaches.

What does a safer approach to recruitment look like?

HR professionals are the gatekeepers of a business. As well as searching for and recruiting the right people, they must also ensure that these people understand and meet their role’s responsibilities. The right skills and experience are both important, but qualities such as attitude, personality, and inter-personal skills should also be duly considered.

For regulated activities, HR’s main role is to ensure potential employees can legally work with children, young people, and/ or vulnerable adults. This is done by conducting a DBS (Disclosure & Barring Service) check on the individual to ensure they are not on a barred list. A business commits an offence if they knowingly hire a barred person to conduct regulated activities, which can amount to prosecution and a significant fine.

Even unregulated activities involving indirect contact with children, young people and vulnerable adults should involve a safeguarding approach. To gain a better understanding of this, HR professionals should consider the risk profile of a relevant role. Will that person be in a position of trust or authority? Will they be working with others or on their own? What kind of influence might they have on the behaviour of someone else? DBS checks are a useful starting point for roles with higher risk profiles, but some other options to consider are:

  • Terms and conditions: A potential recruit should understand their responsibilities and agree to these as a pre-requisite to any job offer. For regulated activity, this will include acknowledgement of behaviours that may lead to a DBS referral and subsequent barring. Terms and conditions should not be forgotten once a contract is signed. HR can remind staff through regular liaison, internal communication, and refresher training.
  • Induction and training: Expectations of safe working practices should be embedded from the outset. Review your induction training: does it include adequate guidance on any legal requirements, best practice, policies and procedures and reporting? Consider making formal safeguarding training regular – at least every year – to stay on top of the latest developments and guidance.

Why all activities need a safeguarding policy

Safeguarding policies encapsulate all aspects of an organisation’s activities, and the risks they may present to both employees and clients or customers.

Whether an activity is regulated or not, having a safeguarding policy is advisable. It acts as a point of reference for the entire organisation, providing clear guidelines on a consistent and embedded approach at all levels. They are only effective, however, if they are treated as ‘living documents’ – documents that an organisation updates regularly based on changes in legislation, business activity, and skills profiles. The best policies will also reflect any lessons learned from previous incidents or ‘near misses’.

For HR, a safeguarding policy will include guidelines on safe recruitment practices. HR professionals can, therefore, contribute to the development of a safeguarding policy by considering these questions:

  • What are the pre-requisites to a job offer (e.g. positive disclosures, DBS checks, anecdotal evidence from previous employers)? Are any of these legally required, and to which roles are they applicable?
  • How will you qualify an employee’s knowledge of safeguarding? Will safeguarding-related questions be part of an interview process, for example?
  • How will disclosures be reported and managed in your department? Consider, for example, appointing a Designated Safeguarding Lead or Champion as a main point of contact.
  • How often will you review the hiring process? How will you know it is fit for purpose?

Safeguarding policies dovetail with existing policies, such as complaints, disciplinary procedures, and whistleblowing. Again, these should be seen as living documents and complement, not contradict, each other.

Are complaints increasing?

Social media campaigns such as #MeToo, as well as widely publicised reviews like the Whyte and Sheldon Reports, are increasing the likelihood of complaints and disclosures. While this empowers people to report abuse and encourages much-needed changes in some organisational cultures, it also presents challenges. Without careful management, safeguarding issues are highly damaging to both those they affect and the business itself – reputationally and in terms of employee wellbeing.

Prevention is always better than cure, so businesses should act now by reviewing all aspects of their work, from the risk profiles of certain roles to the procedures, policies, and training relevant to safeguarding. Consider also how confident employees are with these procedures. Re-inducting staff at all levels, as well as new recruits, may be necessary.

Best practice in safeguarding is not solely HR’s responsibility. As the recruiters and managers of a business’s workforce, however, HR professionals can – and should – take a leading role in improving safeguarding.

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