Global Edition

Are Golf Clubs Some Of The Worst Employment Law Offenders?

9.52am 28th February 2018 - Interviews

Carolyne Wahlen

A member of Golf Business International, Carolyne Wahlen is also a director and founder of Golf HR, an employment law specialist for some of England’s top golf clubs. With 25 years’ experience in human resources she offers a unique insight into the specific difficulties faced by golf clubs when it comes to managing staff issues.  We gave her the GBN grilling and here it is …

In your experience how well do golf clubs, generally, comply with employment law etc …?

Believe it or not, golf club committees are some of the worst offenders when it comes to employment law. I work with golf club managers, so I know more than my fair share about how golf clubs work. And I’ve worked with enough golf club managers for long enough to know that half the problem with golf clubs is the committees.

I have numerous examples: a club manager we were helping was told not only not to pay for HR advice – which is pretty much par for the course – but was also chided for getting free advice from ACAS, “because the government will log what problems we have and use it against us”.

In another shameful example, one chairman decided to cancel all HR support because, apparently, they “hadn’t had enough issues to justify the cost”.  Note he claimed not ‘enough’, not none at all.

In another, they used a barrister on their committee to check their contracts and handbook. He gave it the all clear. Only problem was, he was an expert in criminal law, not employment law. The contracts were really not up to the job.

I often compare golf club committees to teenagers: they think they know it all; they won’t listen to good advice; they want to do what they want to the detriment of everybody else; they don’t even do effective research on the internet to answer their questions; and they get in a strop if they don’t get their way – I’ve got teenagers so I experience both!

That’s an amusing analogy – but the examples you gave are quite disconcerting. Do you have any more?

Yes, several. One committee failed to manage a head greenkeeper for 15 years, giving very limited feedback, and then decided he ‘had to go’ because the course “isn’t as good as it could be”. And, because they believed they were a “caring organisation” they paid him a year’s salary to go without a fuss, rather than managing him properly over the years and having a better course.

And sometimes being ‘caring’ can bring its own issues. At another club, a committee member refused to ask for a sick note from an employee who was off ill, ignoring the actual process … although that would imply they knew there was a process, and I’m not sure they did. It’s certainly not as blatant as the first two examples, but it illustrates how widespread and varied is the lack of knowledge and adherence.

What should be done about it?

Jean, a member of staff at Golf HR, is a school governor, with far more restricted responsibilities than a committee member at a golf club. But even though Jean’s responsibilities are much less onerous than a golf club committee member, she – like every governor – had to attend a one-day training course before being ‘let loose’. And I think this should be a requirement for golf clubs too.

All clubs have turnovers running to hundreds of thousands of pounds – if not millions – with premises, staff, and members of the public coming on to the site. If someone tried to run this set-up in the private sector, they would be severely chastised – if not financially penalised – for not having expert advisors and knowledge.

Are proprietary clubs just as guilty? Or do you find the main culprits in this sector are those member clubs with well-meaning, yet unqualified, individuals sitting on a committee?

Proprietary clubs are exactly the same when it comes to the length of time for decision making. I thought they would be quicker, as there is potentially just one person to ask. However, in all other respects, proprietary clubs are much more aware of their legal obligations. The owners know it is their neck on the line, as well as their money that will be taken, and that ignorance will not be a defence.

The problem with most, but not all, committees is that people are elected who often have no experience, let alone expertise, in a particular area. Even worse, some members are “strongly persuaded” to take on roles in which they not only have no experience, but in which they have no interest either. An explosive combination …

There must be several areas where golf clubs are unusual, if not unique, in the HR sector – please can you tell us some and how you handle issues therein?

Golf clubs are unique because they have all the challenges of private-sector companies (working to budgets, having good staff, maintaining staff levels) in a customer-facing environment, with the added challenge that the ‘customers’ feel they own the club and can, therefore, get involved in staff issues, which would never happen in the private sector. Add in a dash of a committee or board that changes every year, and, even if you get one group up to speed on what can and can’t be done, the next year you have to start again.

It is not made any easier by the committee having ex-businessmen who used to ‘just fire them’ in the good old days, 15-20 years ago. And, to an extent, that is what they could do. But because of what was done then, we now have laws protecting employees. And it is the club who will pay if it is done wrong.

The key to working with golf clubs is communication, giving the committee and managers the chance to ask their questions; to reassure them there is a process to deal with any given situation, and that they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. It is also easier for us as there is no personal angle to our process, whereas there is usually a ‘history’ with staff members, often going back years before it has reached breaking point.

As a member of Golf Business International, your experience in HR sits alongside many other skills, from course design to health and safety, and much more. How well does that work for you?

It has been very useful for me to be a member of Golf Business International. The other consultants are talking to the golf clubs about their projects, and, as part of that conversation, staff challenges will be mentioned: moans about attitude, problems keeping staff, etc.

The other consultants are in a perfect situation to cross-refer to me, so I can have the informal chat about staff issues.

And, of course, it works the other way. I have been able to refer several consultants to golf clubs already, because in the course of our conversation, their problems in another area were mentioned, such as health and safety, greenkeeper’s vehicles, bar and catering stock takes, etc.

So it’s extremely beneficial all round.

Golf Business International – a ‘preferred partner’ of England Golf – is unique in its ability to make available a team of highly respected and experienced golf industry professionals to deal with any aspect of the business of golf through from conception to end.  Golf Business International members can offer specialist skills in any number of aspects of golf operations, including buying, selling and financing golf developments; golf marketing and media relations; designing and building golf courses and driving ranges; environmental golf development; golf market research; and much more.


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