Almost two-thirds of the 9.4 million UK workers furloughed under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) continued to work in April and May – despite the scheme’s strict requirement for beneficiaries to down tools.

In the largest study so far of UK organisations’ practical handling of the government’s Covid-19 employment contingency, researchers at the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Zurich found that “not all workers are furloughed equally” – and that abuse of the CJRS has been widespread. (Adams-Prassl et al, 17 August 2020) 

In a poll of almost 9,000 furloughed staff, the researchers found that among eligible workers who can do at least 50% of their jobs from home, only 17% have worked zero hours under the scheme. For the majority of that group, their working hours have been only 25% lower than they were in the pre-lockdown month of February.

Most concerningly, 19% of the total study sample report “being explicitly asked to work by their employer despite being currently furloughed”.

While the issue varies between furloughed staff in different occupations, it applies to 44% of those in ‘Computer and Mathematical’ jobs and 35% of those in the ‘Information and Communication’ sector.

Interestingly, the report notes: “Many more furloughed employees report working even if not explicitly compelled to do so by their employer,” suggesting that staff feel duty bound to carry on working – perhaps to keep face with their bosses.

Speaking to the press, Georgina Halford-Hall – CEO of advice and support body WhistleblowersUK – said that her organisation had fielded calls about managerial abuse of the furlough scheme. (Mail Online, 22 August 2020)

She revealed: “The most shocking call we had was from a carer who was told they were furloughed, but told to keep working otherwise the people they care for wouldn’t be looked after. We also had a group of 15 people working on a building site who were told they had to keep working if they wanted a job at the end of the furlough scheme.”

In the same article, Crossland Employment Solicitors director Beverley Sunderland said: “Some people have been saying that their employer has given them a 20% pay cut, but they are still expected to work. Employers are having their salaries paid by the government and are still getting all the work done.”

What ethical lessons should leaders take away from this?

The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “We had heard anecdotally that there were companies who were defrauding the furloughing scheme – claiming the money, and expecting individuals to work – but had no real indication as to precisely how widespread it was.”

She stresses: “This is essentially theft. And the absence of integrity and ethical behaviour that the study discloses reveals a critical area of tension. Perhaps as a matter of short-term expediency, senior leadership teams decided that it was okay to do this. But the messages that those leaders are sending out to their workforces about honesty, integrity and acting properly while no one is looking – which of course is the acid test of ethical behaviour – cannot be good for their company cultures in the long run.”

Cooper explains: “People will either imitate or replicate that behaviour. Or they may go the other way and be inwardly very critical of the organisation and distance themselves from it – a very real possibility, given that our own research has shown how important shared values are to so many employees. It seems likely that at some point the government will undertake efforts to follow up on these findings in an official investigation – and it is so easy now with digital footprints to evidence whether or not people have been working. So leaders must accept that there is nowhere to hide.”

She adds: “We know that chancellor Rishi Sunak is continuing to explore ways of financing the UK’s ongoing response to the coronavirus crisis. Punitive measures against organisations that have abused the furlough scheme may well be an obvious place to go.”

For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on ethics.


Source refs:

Adams-Prassl et al, 17 August 2020

Mail Online, 22 August 2020

Image of CJRS architect, chancellor Rishi Sunak courtesy of Cubankite, via Shutterstock