Acas warns HR of tough times ahead as tribunal claims rise

HR professionals today face a “double whammy” of a lack of experience in dealing with redundancy-related tribunal claims and a sharp rise in employment law, the chairman of Acas has warned.

Ed Sweeney, chairman of the arbitration and conciliation body, said that relatively new HR staff could have a tough time on their hands.

It comes as the number of conciliation cases received by the employment relations service leapt by almost a fifth in the past year.

More than 78,000 conciliation cases were received by Acas from the Employment Tribunal Service, nearly a fifth more than last year, its annual report showed.

Unfair dismissal cases also jumped by 22% to 55,000 – a rise of almost 12,000.

Sweeney said the rise in cases had been caused by the recession and warned that many HR professionals would not have had the experience of working through such tough economic times.

He told Personnel Today: “Most HR specialists are relatively new. It’s been at least 15 years since we last had a recession. New professionals are coming to the field that have not dealt with a recession, and legislation has changed dramatically. It’s a double whammy. My advice is to go to our helpline and check out our website.”

The Acas helpline has also been swamped with callers seeking advice on redundancy, even though the body extended its opening hours in April to cope with extra demand.

The service, which received between 10,000 and 15,000 calls per week requesting advice on redundancy in 2008-09, has seen a 100% increase in calls.

David Yeandle, head of employment policy at manufacturers’ body the EEF, agreed there was a risk some HR professionals might feel out of their depth with the current situation.

“It’s one of the reasons why we are doing a lot to make sure our member companies and the people who have not got the experience of dealing with this are as up to speed as they possibly can be,” he said.

He added that HR departments should, wherever possible, seek to resolve differences within the workplace and ensure they comply with legislative requirements when making people redundant.

Nick Squire, an employment partner at law firm Freshfields, advised employers to ensure their compliance policy, termination processes and internal control and investigation policies were up to date and effectively enforced.

“In-house legal teams need to stay close to key business lines and work effectively with HR, ” he said.

“Organisations must communicate both internally with employees and their representatives and externally with unions, regulatory/local authorities and the press. And in the event that a redundancy situation is necessary, employers must be careful with selection procedures and make sure they carry out their consultations properly.”

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