Employers threaten termination to encourage office returns

'Uneven and inconsistent adoption' of hybrid model has created inequities, say leaders

Employers threaten termination to encourage office returns

Are U.S. employers threatening employees with termination if they remain non-compliant with return-to-office policies?

A new report from the Wall Street Journal says that managers of investment giant Vanguard Group are warning staff of layoffs, without severance, if they fail to comply with the company's return-to-work policy.

It follows the implementation of the company's hybrid work arrangement, which aims to bring back employees on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.

Executives, however, observed an "uneven" adoption in the implementation of the policy.

"Uneven and inconsistent adoption has created inequities in how the model is applied and has made it difficult to realize the benefits of in-person learning, collaboration and connection," the company said in a memo to employees, as obtained by the Wall Street Journal.

A team leader reportedly told employees that the company is willing to revise its return-to-office policy but wanted to see how hybrid work can work for the company.

A spokesperson told the WSJ that the company implemented hybrid work to capture the benefits of flexibility and in-person environment, noting that the company's collaborative culture is critical for clients and employees.

Other employers are also asking employees to return full-time, according to the journal. In the case of tech firm Paycom Software, employees were told that they would need to return to work full-time, noting that remote work was only a "temporary solution."

For LifePro Financial Services, the company is already making it clear to applicants during initial interviews that their jobs would require them "100% in-office."

Termination over failure to return

Asking staff to return to office can be very tricky, given how unpopular it is to employees. Glassdoor said RTO is the "Word of the Year" in the US, but a majority of reviews about this are "overwhelmingly negative."

Threatening termination may not make it more positive for employees, but can employers really fire someone for not coming back?

"An employee who refuses to comply with a lawful direction to return to office working may be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment," said Matthew Parker, senior lawyer at Moray and Agnew.

There are a few exceptions to this, however, such as when employers fail to address the risks posed by COVID-19 or did not consult staff regarding its plans, according to Parker.

How to encourage office return

The problem with return-to-office schemes is they lack a "compelling narrative," and employees would need a stronger reason to come back, according to Bill Zeng, senior director, APAC, at tech firm Poly.

"The return to office lacks a compelling narrative, and short-term gimmicks like free coffee and doughnuts have run their course," Zeng said.

Employers should then focus on providing the "total experience" in the office to make returning more appealing to staff.

"People need a reason to return, so organisations must carefully assess the office experience they aim to deliver, and how this equates to the remote working experience - an equality of experience, whether in-office or remote, is key to a successful hybrid working model," Zeng said.

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