Green HR strategies for the modern workplace in Poland: tax and legal insights
By Anna Golenia-Wójcik, senior associate, Employment & Pensions Department, Osborne Clarke Poland and Rafał Sidorowicz, senior manager, and Karolina Demska, senior consultant, Personal Tax Practice and Advisory Services for Employers, MDDP
In today’s fast-changing business world, companies must adapt to the new needs of employees as well as the environment. A key area that is important in the perception of a firm as an attractive, socially responsible employer aware of climate and environmental challenges is green HR.
Green HR combines the creation of green workplaces, the digitalisation of HR processes with green benefits for employees.
The digitalisation of HR processes can manifest itself in the shift from paper to electronic documentation, as well as the implementation of new digital methods of personnel management. In the context of green HR, it means more efficient employee data management while minimising paper and energy consumption.
When implementing the digitalisation of employee records and introducing electronic documents in place of paper documents, it is necessary to comply with the requirements of Polish labour law. Of particular importance here is compliance with the legal form required by the regulations.
From the perspective of labour law, some employee documentation requires a written form, which can be completed by signing the document with a qualified electronic signature. In cases where the regulations do not require written form, it is possible to use another type of electronic signature. The introduction of electronic signatures facilitates processes related to contracts and declarations, speeding up hiring procedures and increasing the efficiency of the HR department. In addition to the introduction of e-files, an electronic form of employee documentation, digitalisation can extend to other HR processes, such as onboarding, employee evaluations, employee engagement, satisfaction surveys and offboarding. It is important to choose the right digitalisation method, one that meets the needs of the employer and employees, and provides legal security in terms of data protection regulations or compliance with the prohibition of unequal treatment in employment, among others.
Digitalisation of the sphere of human capital management in the organisation should be preceded by an analysis of needs and expectations, and confronted with the possibilities of new software, systems used in the electronic world of HR.
Companies are increasingly realising that environmental sustainability is not just limited to the manufacturing or building-related area, but also translates into employee relations. In this regard, employers are offering green benefits to their employees. Green benefits should be understood primarily as those benefits or solutions that have a positive impact on the environment.
One of the key elements of green benefits is work flexibility. Introducing remote working, reducing the need for business travel or promoting hybrid work not only contributes to reducing the CO2 emissions associated with commuting, but also promotes a better work-life balance. Sustainable benefit programmes, such as subsidising public transportation subscriptions or offering company bicycles, motivate employees to choose greener modes of transportation.
From the organisation’s perspective, it is important that the implementation of new employee benefits is done in accordance with company regulations and does not violate the principle of equal treatment in employment. The recommended solution is to prepare policies, procedures that will determine on what terms employees can enjoy green benefits.
While some employers endeavour to support the green transformation, the Polish tax system lacks the necessary incentives to encourage others to actively contribute to environmental protection. Regrettably, the current Polish tax framework does not offer compelling incentives, such as tax reliefs or exemptions, to drive widespread adoption of green benefits among employers.
Electrification of the company car fleet
One of the most popular green transformation actions undertaken by Polish employers is the electrification of the company car fleet. If an employee uses an electric/hybrid or hydrogen-powered company car for private purposes, the employee’s additional lump-sum income is 250 złotys per month. The question is whether the inclusion of this amount in the employee’s income resolves the issue of taxing this benefit. What about the maintenance expenses, specifically the cost of electricity for charging such a car? In this respect, a positive change in the approach represented by the Polish tax authorities can already be observed.
Until recently, the Polish tax authorities indicated that if a company covers an employee’s lump-sum charging costs for an electric vehicle, such compensation constitutes additional income for the employee. This position put users of company electric cars at a disadvantage compared to those using combustion-powered cars, as at the same time the tax authorities did not demand taxation of fuel costs covered or reimbursed by the employer in relation to company cars.
Currently, the case law reflects a much more favourable position for employees. Once an employee charges the company’s electric car at their place of residence or petrol station, the employer’s reimbursement of the expenses is not considered additional income for the employee. In other words, reimbursing the expense of charging an electric company car based on the actual costs incurred by the employee is not treated as additional income for the employee.
However, the tax authorities specify that if the employer pays a lump sum for the expense of charging the car, it should be accounted for and any excess over the employee’s charging expense should either be reimbursed to the employer or be included in the employee’s income from the employment. This implies that both the company and the employee cannot avoid the necessity of accurately valuing the cost of the energy used to charge the company car.
Promoting the use of public transportation
The taxation of benefits related to funding employees’ public-transport tickets remains uncertain. This is due to varying positions taken by tax authorities in analogous factual situations.
One of the cases reviewed by the director of KIS (the national tax information service) involved the employer financing, either fully or partially, the expenses for monthly tickets intended for employees to use exclusively for private purposes, such as commuting to and from the employer’s premises. The tax authority deemed that the provision of this benefit by the employer should constitute additional income for employees arising from the employment relationship.
In another case, the issue pertained to the financing of a public transport ticket used for employees’ job-related duties, which the employees could also use for personal purposes. The tax authority determined that this benefit cannot be qualified as income from the employment relationship, as it is impossible to determine the extent to which individual employees used the ticket for private purposes due to its failure to keep records of private journeys.
On the other hand, if the employer – even without a mandate from generally applicable labour law – provides the employee with a ticket for travelling to and from their place of permanent residence to visit their family, the monetary value of this benefit is considered employment income.
Considering the tax rulings issued, it can be observed that the crucial factors are the circumstances under which the employer decides to fund the tickets and the employer’s argumentation specifying the purpose of funding such a benefit.
Subsidies for buying green two-wheelers
An interesting topic to explore is the taxation of employees who receive support from their employer to purchase bicycles, electric bicycles, scooters or electric scooters.
In one of the recently issued rulings, the director of national tax information stated that the value of the cash benefits will not constitute an additional taxable income if the amounts transferred to the employee would be donation. Instead, it will be subject to inheritance and gift tax. Currently, the inheritance and gift tax free amount for unrelated persons is 5,733 złotys. It’s important to note that not only the recent donation but all donations received from the same person in the five years preceding the year in which the last acquisition took place must be included in the limit. However, such a donation will not be considered as a tax-deductible expense for the employer.
As can be seen above, employee benefits can be taxed as additional employment income or donation, depending on the circumstances. However, there is a clear need for the Polish legislator to streamline the process for companies to adopt a corporate social responsibility strategy. It is hoped that the promotion of the green transition will be mirrored in the Polish tax system, with the introduction of new tax reliefs or exemptions. These measures should encourage employers to align their business practices with a green transition.
Growing social awareness and concern for the environment mean that companies are increasingly seeing the benefits of implementing sustainable practices in the area of personnel management.
Green HR is not only a modern approach to human resource management, but also an opportunity to build a positive corporate image, increase employee engagement and contribute to environmental protection.