Good Riddance to Employment Tribunal Fees

Well, it’s been a long time coming, but the Cameron Government’s decision to charge fees for people to raise claims in the Employment Tribunal has finally been shown to be illegal.

Created with Nokia Refocus

In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court has ruled that charging people up to £1200 so they can challenge the legality of their employer’s actions is illegal.

Fees were never introduced in Northern Ireland, and it is notable that there was no drop off in the number of applications to go to their Industrial Tribunal.  Meanwhile, across Great Britain, ET applications plummeted by 70%.  In Scotland, the SNP Government stood for election in 2015 with a pledge that, as soon as they had the power to do so, they would legislate to remove Employment Tribunal fees, justifying this on the premise that someone who has just unfairly lost their employment is unlikely to be able to find the money and will, therefore, be denied access to justice.

Introduced in 2013, fees were initially justified as being to reduce the number of “weak claims”, though a financial incentive later became apparent with the Justice Minister at the time stating

We want people, where they can, to pay a fair contribution for the system they are using, which will encourage them to look for alternatives.

That case was never particularly convincing and the result, inevitably, was that many people with a valid claim were unable to bring it because they couldn’t pay the fee.

Alongside the fees, the Cameron Government also introduced mandatory Early Conciliation.  This is a process whereby the parties, with facilitation by ACAS, can try to reach an out of court settlement and is something applicants have to do before they can complete their ET application.  Although there’s nothing wrong with this in principle, my experience of it wasn’t good.  I have found few employers prepared to negotiate towards a settlement, preferring to gamble on whether or not the applicant could find enough cash for the fee.  Perhaps, with fees now found to be illegal, there will be a greater incentive for all sides to take a more pragmatic, conciliatory approach.

Dave Prentis, the UNISON General Secretary, welcomed the Supreme Court ruling saying:

The government has been acting unlawfully, and has been proved wrong – not just on simple economics, but on constitutional law and basic fairness too.

In this context, the positive role of trade unions shouldn’t be underestimated, and not just because it is through UNISON’s expertise and persistence that this ruling has been achieved, but more locally and practically as well.  A well-trained union rep can defuse and head off the vast majority of cases referred to them, most often through facilitating a pragmatic solution, sometimes through persuading an individual that their case doesn’t stack up.  As an example, this leads to a significant reduction in the number of cases going to grievance, and those that do proceed tend to be much better presented.  This is something that many employers could easily miss.

That principle also filters through to ET applications.  Unions take great care in presenting cases, cases they support are exceptionally unlikely to be regarded by the Tribunal as “malicious, vexatious or frivolous” or “in bad faith”, and a significant proportion are successful.

Of course, most trade unions opted to pay these fees for their members, but many, many people who weren’t in a union must have been denied access to justice by this ill-conceived policy.  While it is likely that those who applied to the ET will have their fees repaid, at this stage it seems likely that those who couldn’t afford the fee at the time will have missed their opportunity, but it remains to be seen if any pragmatism will be shown in that respect.

 

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on the issues raised in this article, so please leave a comment or, if you’d like to discuss anything more directly, please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

 

Taylor Report on Employment – where now?

 We (OK, a few of us) were on tenterhooks waiting for the publication of the Taylor Report into employment practices in the UK, but will it make things clearer or further muddy the waters?

Uber, Deliveroo and Pimlico Plumbers have all been answering legal questions about the legitimacy of a business model that sees them, and other companies, claiming the people work for them are self-employed, so they don’t have to pay Employers’ National Insurance, pension, holidays, sick leave, etc., as their competitors do.  At the outset, Taylor commented that there were areas into which he wasn’t tasked to delve (tax & National Insurance, for example), so it hasn’t, perhaps, been the free and open review that had been called for by many.

There are, however, several aspects that are unlikely to go down well with factions of the Conservative government.  Speaking in May, Taylor said:

“As we encourage people to vote . . . to inform themselves of issues, to volunteer in their community, is it defensible to say that for eight or more hours a day they should accept being ignored, denied information, treated as mere cogs in a machine?”

That could easily be interpreted as a call to reverse moves by the Cameron Government to apply cumulative restrictions to the ability of trade unions to provide that voice.  It could also be that Theresa May’s surprise decision to announce in November:

“…we will shortly publish our plans to reform corporate governance, including … proposals to ensure the voice of employees is heard in the boardroom.” 

might actually come to fruition, though there has been precious little mention of the radical reforms of employment law mentioned in the run-up to the general election.

However, it also suggests that implementation of the Information and Consultation of Employees Regulations 2004 (ICER) hasn’t had the impact that it could and should have had.  Certainly, many trade union activists viewed ICER with suspicion, partly because merely informing and consulting can achieve relatively little without scope for negotiation. Similarly, some employers saw it as a way to prevent unions from getting access to their workplace.  However, those opinions have been changing over time, as demonstrated by the TUC’s “Democracy in the Workplace” report from 2014.  There is considerable evidence that employers that actively engage with their staff are more successful than those that don’t:

“Happy and productive people equals growth” (ACAS)

Many were calling for a simplification of the categories, preventing confusion over whether people are employees, workers or self-employed: instead, Taylor seems to be recommending that a further category is introduced, that of “Dependent Contractor”, something more than self-employed, clearly less than a worker, but that is presumably intended to level the playing field.

Quite how the Government will react to the findings is, frankly, anyone’s guess, especially with the level of distraction coming from Brexit, May’s increasingly slender majority, rumoured challenges for the Tory leadership (and, hence, the job of Prime Minister) and Labour apparently surging ahead of the Conservatives for the first time since the General Election, it’ll be a real surprise if they turn to this as a matter of urgency.  But it is the response of Government to these findings that will determine whether or not they make a positive difference for employers and those they employ.

Instead, attention will again be drawn to Uber’s fortunes in the Employment Appeals Tribunal in September.

From where I’m sitting, one answer is in the hands of every employer; improve your working relationship with your staff and, in turn, make the business more productive and more profitable.  That’s an area where I would certainly like to help.

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on the issues raised in this article, so please leave a comment or, if you’d like to discuss anything more directly, please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

Back to the Future as wages are predicted to stay in the past

In spite of political insistence that the economy is recovering, and has been for a good while, this week the BBC’s Economics Editor has predicted that wages are likely to stagnate for a good while longer.

That conclusion isn’t really a surprise, but it will be a disappointment for many given the extent to which pay has been eroded over recent years – this report from 3 years ago pointing out that real-terms pay is stuck in a time loop at 2004.

“But pay rises haven’t been worse since the Napoleonic wars”

The Office of National Statistics’ Annual Survey of Hours & Earnings isn’t complete for 2016, but many of the draft results don’t make happy reading as far as pay growth is concerned:

  • Adjusted for inflation, weekly earnings increased by 1.9% compared with 2015, an increase due to a combination of growth in average earnings and a low inflation (more on inflation below).
  • Weekly earnings rose 2.2% for full-time workers, 6.6% for part-time workers.
  • The gender pay gap for full-time employees was 9.4% (the gap has hardly changed over the last six years).

Indeed, if you look at the cumulative impacts of pay restraint under successive Governments, the 2008 economic crisis and the seemingly never ending austerity that has followed, some public sector workers may only have seen a real terms pay increase in their lifetime if they have managed to get a promotion – and many have only done so because inflation was so low in 2014/15:

“The gross wages of the median Scottish worker are £1170 lower than if wages had kept pace with CPI inflation since 2009.”

…and that’s before you get into the debate about whether CPI, currently 2.6%, is a reasonable measure of the increased cost of living (most trade unions and many commentators prefer to use RPI, currently sitting at 3.5%, as it includes housing costs).

 

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment, but if you’d like to discuss this topic more directly please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787

Trade Unions face big new fines

Trade Unions face big new fines

“The number of working days lost are at historically low levels when looking at the long-run monthly time series back to the 1930s.”

Sneaking past the radar, under cover of Brexit, the Government is running a number of consultations, including ones around the Trade Union Act 2016 and Corporate Governance. The Corporate Governance review deadline has passed, so the gathered information is now being collated and interpreted, but other elements are still in play. The consultation that caught my eye was consultation on the Certification Officer’s enforcement powers. This will introduce significantly tighter rules on the election for senior positions, vetting of candidates and the management of political funds, with unions facing fines of up to £20,000 if they breach those rules.

As is often the case, there’s a stick for when things go wrong, but no carrot to encourage a more positive approach to be deployed. The consultation in process doesn’t seem to be leveling the playing field so much as presenting another set of hurdles for unions to jump in order to be effective in representing the voices of their members.

Only last November Theresa May stated “…we will shortly publish our plans to reform corporate governance, including … proposals to ensure the voice of employees is heard in the boardroom.” at the CBI Conference. She backtracked pretty quickly, and the concept that staff have a valid (essential?) voice in the successful governance of businesses and charities was diluted in the document that was published, but it was still there. There is, therefore, an opportunity for employers to provide a channel for that voice.

And all of this comes at a time when strikes are at close to their recorded low – to quote from the Office of National Statistics report UK Labour Market: Mar 2017:

“The number of working days lost are at historically low levels when looking at the long-run monthly time series back to the 1930s.”

Yet, while CEOs across the land still proclaim their staff to be their biggest asset, most still decline to draw on staff knowledge of the business, the problems it faces and many possible solutions.

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment, but if you’d like to discuss this topic more directly please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

Trade Union Act looms large…

This extremely useful summary by David Morgan at Burgess Paull of the upcoming changes through the Trade Union Act caught my eye, and brought to mind some of the key issues surrounding the Act.

The existence of this legislation in the first place is a bizarre piece of ideological policy making, since it certainly isn’t/wasn’t responding to an actual need. To quote from the Office of National Statistics:

“The 2015 working days lost total (170,000) is not only lower than the total last year, but is the second lowest annual total since records began in 1891 (the lowest was 157,000 in 2005).”

As well as being of questionable need, the legality of the provisions has been questioned in many quarters, but most notably, perhaps by the Governments own Equality & Human Rights Commission. In January last year, the EHCR warned that the provisions may breach international law, stating:

“As it stands, the Trade Union Bill is in danger of imposing potentially unlawful restrictions on everyone’s basic human right to strike. Joining a trade union and peacefully picketing outside workplaces is a right not a privilege and restrictions have to be properly justified and proportionate.”

Although some changes were made before the Bill passed into law, research compiled by the Industrial Law Society suggests that these did little to address concerns in relation to human rights. If this latter article is correct, although we might have expected to see a number of challenges under Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights should employers opt to assert the new laws, these cases will be difficult to build and therefore may not emerge. Most of the large unions seem to be focusing their efforts on getting better organised, while experience shows that they will adapt to the new legal framework in spite of the additional inconvenience.

Interestingly, and in stark contrast to the Whitehall position, the Scottish Government announced in November 2016 that it was creating a Trade Union Modernisation Fund “to support modernisation of trade unions and help mitigate the negative impacts of UK legislation.” In that context, it will be interesting to see if there are differences of approach north and south of the border once the legislation has been enacted.

Of course, I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment, but if you’d like to discuss this topic more directly please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

Disciplinary Penalties: You’ll Have Done Your Time?

This is an interesting one.  An  Employment Appeal Tribunal has recently ruled that an employer acted fairly in dismissing someone while taking into account a number of disciplinary issues that were, according to their procedures, ‘spent’.

The case is an extreme one, with the employer having taken 18 formal actions against the individual over a 12 year period.  The employee then did something that carried a mandatory final written warning.  However, the employer decided that the previous disciplinary record, in spite of all penalties having expired, should be taken alongside the latest misdemeanour, leading to their deciding to dismiss the individual.  Most Disciplinary Procedures are quite clear on how long a warning will remain on an individual’s personal file, and most employees will assume that, once that time has passed, they no longer need to worry about the record. There are, however, policies that say a record can be kept longer (even indefinitely) for a range of purposes – possibly the most common being to use as a deciding factor in a redundancy situation, but there are others.

For years, I’ve advised people to make a Data Subject Access Request for their personal information once they’re clear of the penalty, so anything that should no longer be on their employment record will be removed, just in case they get taken into account in any future situation (e.g. redundancy).

One of the problems is that very few companies have the resources to be meticulous about keeping their staff records (or their other filing) absolutely up to date.  The result is that, even if the policies say nothing, records of things that have happened years ago can remain on the file to be seen by whoever next needs to access it.  If that happens to be for a future disciplinary, is it reasonable to expect an investigating officer to ignore that information once they’ve read it?  They may try hard not to consider it but, subconsciously perhaps, they now know this individual has a history.

Even if that history has no relevance to current circumstances.

 

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment. Alternatively, if you’ve been affected by a similar issue and would like to discuss this topic more directly please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

 

Time to call time on out of hours e-mail?

The French now have an absolute right NOT to check their e-mail out of hours, but why do people do it in the first place?  Is a law necessary?  And how much of it comes as an expectation of the employer, and how much is self-inflicted?

I suspect there may be a PhD in accurately finding the answer to these questions, but few employment contracts demand that you are available and responding 24 hours a day and for most people the actual expectation is that they work their normal contract hours, plus give a bit of flexibility when they need to get something done.  It’s interesting that France has felt the need to protect people from the pressure (perhaps to protect them from themselves?) by introducing a law that guarantees the right not to check e-mail when you’re not working.

In the days of paper correspondence, people would expect a response to their communication perhaps within the week, but after 5 or 6 days was often the best that could be achieved once everything was balanced into the diary.  That steadily changed as electronic communication came to the fore.

The step changes in expectation, however, came with the rise of the laptop and the BlackBerry.  While the traditional BlackBerry is an endangered species, teetering on the verge of extinction, more and more people are carrying a smart phone on which they can not only send and receive e-mail, but they can browse the internet, log into cloud drives, even edit documents.

I’ve had colleagues in the past who expected instant responses to their e-mails – one reportedly started criticising my lack of response because I hadn’t replied within 2 hours of them e-mailing me.  Whether or not that was true, the fact that someone was prepared to relay it indicates how believable it is in the modern world of work that expectations have become so utterly and completely unreasonable.

This whole situation has become exacerbated by the increasing use of Twitter and other social media by businesses looking to communicate with their customers and clients.  Twitter has brought the expectation of instant responses, or at least within a few minutes, to the extent that some staff are now being tasked with responding to all Tweets within very short timescales, while there has been a growth in suppliers offering social media management services so you can outsource the “instant” responses and focus on more considered answers to legitimate questions.

It is inevitable that this focus on more and more rapid response should spill into people feeling they’re not doing their job properly if they don’t meet the timescales.  That, combined with increasing presenteeism, means people are often tempted into having a quick check of their work e-mail once they get home.  Or just before they go to bed.  Or as soon as they wake up in the morning.  Or while they’re SUPPOSED to be off work ill.  This last one is particularly concerning as the increased stress will undoubtedly delay their recovery, while they are unlikely to get any thanks or recognition from their employer for having done so.  Indeed, a responsible employer should be seeking to stop such behaviour, as has been reported on the parts of Volkswagen, Daimler, Axa and other companies.

To highlight the folly of this lifestyle change, keep an eye out for more information about Work Your Proper Hours Day, an annual event instigated 13 years ago.  Given the amount of unpaid overtime you probably work, including checking your e-mails out of hours, WYPHD falls on the day each year when you (as an average worker) actually start to get paid for the work you do.  And in 2015 people in the UK worked £31.5 billion worth of hours without getting paid a penny.  This year it falls on Friday 24th February.

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment, but if you’d like to discuss this topic more directly please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787

Anti-Bullying Week highlights a growing problem in UK workplaces

Bullying & harassment is a growing problem in UK workplaces, but we shouldn’t accept that as just a fact of life.  

Today is the start of Anti-Bullying week.  Designated by the Anti-Bullying Alliance (ABA), the focus is largely on bullying amongst children, but it also encapsulates issues that arise in the workplace.

What is workplace bullying?

Bully Online define workplace bullying as follows:

Bullying is conduct that cannot be objectively justified by a reasonable code of conduct, and whose likely or actual cumulative effect is to threaten, undermine, constrain, humiliate or harm another person or their property, reputation, self-esteem, self-confidence or ability to perform.

There are loads of other definitions, but they all boil down to very similar messages.

So why bully?

A few of the more commonly reported reasons are:

  • The bully is insecure, possibly because they are being bullied themselves;
  • They feel threatened that someone in their team may be more capable than they are;
  • They’ve been promoted into a management role but have never been properly trained to do it;
  • They are fitting in with the organisational management culture

Experience suggests that many perpetrators are unaware of the longer term emotional impacts of their behaviours.  To someone suffering at the hands of a bully it may seem trite to say so, but challenging the behaviour, and highlighting how it makes you feel as an individual, is often the most effective way to make it stop.  Sadly, the creeping vulnerability that develops when bullying continues unchecked, along with the perceived impossibility of building a case[1], often makes people decide it is easier to either suffer or leave their job.

All too often such behaviour flows from the top, especially from managers who pride themselves on “running a tight ship” or being “robust” in their management – just two of the many terms used to justify behaviour that is actually unacceptable, ones that can flag up the possibility that someone they manage may see their approach as bullying.

Economic Impact

Aside from the human effects, the economic impact is huge.  The performance of those being bullied drops, often they are off sick more frequently, and awareness of what is happening can have a serious impact on wider morale and productivity.  A year ago ACAS published a guide on tackling workplace bullying that referred to 2008 research indicating that workplace bullying costs the UK economy almost £18 billion.  Sadly, their recent evidence is also that bullying is on the rise, something no doubt exacerbated by the continuing economic difficulties facing many companies and organisations.

Let’s hope, for everyone’s sakes, that knowing more about workplace bullying will help to identify it and stop it.

 

 

[1] Of course, there ARE ways of building a case, get in touch if you’d like some advice.

Lidl v GMB – what’s going on?

food-healthy-vegetables-potatoesLast weekend there were news articles about Lidl’s decision to appeal against the ruling that they should recognise GMB union at their Bridgend depot – but why?

The story is reported on the GMB website, which handily also includes Lidl’s statement on the issue.

A significant majority of staff at Lidl’s Bridgend depot indicated that they wanted to be represented by a trade union in negotiations with the company. Lidl’s response was to reject the request for recognition that came from GMB. This was referred to the Central Arbitration Committee, the body that decides the outcome in such situations, who ruled that the union should be recognised. Lidl’s response has been lukewarm, with reports suggesting they are now going to appeal to the Court of Appeal against the CAC decision.

Setting aside the specifics of Lidl and GMB, the question then arises – why are so many employers hostile to unions?

Workplaces that have a union present have significantly better H&S records than those that don’t, they can access all sorts of training for their staff (union reps and members can access training through their union or STUC and TUC education programmes, as well as wider education through UnionLearn projects, etc.) that they would otherwise have to pay for. Being a representative is also a great way for staff to be exposed to responsibility and authority that would never occur in their day job, so there’s a good chance to see what they can do.

Aside from that, it helps meet obligations under the Information & Consultation of Employees Regulations that may otherwise be both problematic and ineffective.

So, with so much to gain, what is it that makes employers so reluctant to engage with trade unions?

Interestingly, around 70% of FTSE 100 companies recognise unions, so it can’t be THAT damaging to the bottom line.

History is a big factor – many, many employers (and workers) still view the union movement as a behemoth from the 1970s. But unions have changed, forced to evolve and adapt initially by legal changes through the 80s and early 90s, latterly by a drive to become more effective at representing their members in the rapidly changing world of employment. Before the last government decided to raise the hurdles for workers to take legal industrial action, it had already become a rare event – 2015 was the second lowest annual total for working days lost through strike action since records began in 1891 (the lowest was 2005).

There are costs – rates of pay in unionised workplaces are higher, and ensuring your workforce is safe and healthy takes investment, but more competitive pay also means they are more likely to attract better candidates when they advertise jobs, and it’s a good thing that people go home after work as healthy as they were when they started, so there are swings to those roundabouts.

I have long been a believer that the objectives of any workforce largely align with those of their employer – success for the company is in everyone’s interests. Hence my work to help and encourage employers to find the most effective way to interact with their employees to improve the company for whom everyone is working. Given the insights they have into the various levels and structures of your business, staff represent a valuable resource from which to better inform your next big decision. That doesn’t change because the staff want to be represented by a union.

However many people you employ, if you’d like help in improving the way you interact with your staff, whether or not there are unions involved, please get in touch – it could be the start of a new future for your company.  If you’d like to know more about the services offered by Strathesk Resolutions, please e-mail contact@strathesk.co.uk or call Malcolm on 07736068787.

To Mediate or Not to Mediate, That is the Question…

DSCN0199Mediation has been around for a long time, and has been used very successfully in many, many situations.  Despite that, I have found many employers quite slow to adopt mediation as an approach, and often reluctant to put it in place early enough to prevent some situations becoming intractable. In some cases, it seems to be an option of last resort rather than a means to head problems off at the pass.

Part of this seems to come from a lack of understanding of what mediation is and does, part of it from seeing it as an additional expense.  In many cases, those that have tried have done so using internal mediators – while that may work in some situations, staff tend to perceive a mediator employed by their company as having a conflict of interests that means they can’t be impartial.  Whether or not that’s true is irrelevant, the perception is the key to the success of the process, so the results have perhaps not been what might have been hoped.  But the relative costs of employing an external mediator will often pale into insignificance compared to the lost productivity that comes from letting a situation persist or deteriorate.

Interestingly, ACAS research published in 2012 showed that mediation is significantly more successful in workplaces where the employer is genuinely committed to the process, less so where they are reluctant to use it – so the results are, to a large extent, self-fulfilling prophecies.  The paradox is that the statistics also show that mediation is second only to direct communication in successfully resolving issues between employees.

One conclusion from the ACAS research was that one poor result can colour an employer’s view of the value of mediation as a whole.  To a large extent, one of the benefits of mediation is that there is little to be lost in trying it, but please do so with a genuine commitment to find mutually acceptable solutions or it is less likely to succeed.

If you’d like to know more about the mediation and dispute resolution services offered by Strathesk Resolutions, please e-mail contact@strathesk.co.uk or call Malcolm on 07736068787.