Wake up HR: it’s time to check dispute policies

The UK employment relations minister pens an exclusive report for Personnel
Today about the implications of the Government’s imminent dispute resolution
law

Good communication is key to maintaining successful relationships in the
workplace. A problem that’s ignored can escalate, and ultimately result in an
employment tribunal, which can be expensive, stressful and disruptive for all
concerned.

This is why it is so important to provide a robust framework for employers
and employees to handle disputes as and when they happen, enabling tribunals to
take their proper place as the backstop for individual employment rights rather
than being the first port of call.

To standardise procedures the Government has drawn up a three-step framework
that all employers must enshrine in their HR practice from 1 October 2004.

In developing this new structure, we have worked closely with small business
representatives, relevant trade associations and unions, employer bodies, the
Citizen’s Advice Bureau (CAB) and the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration
Service (Acas).

The procedures are clearly set out and easy to follow. First, a letter
should be sent informing the employer or employee of the reasons for the
disciplinary action, dismissal or grievance.

Second, a face-to-face meeting between the two parties should be arranged,
allowing them time to consider the other’s complaint beforehand. After that
meeting, the employer must inform the employee of the decision, and of their
right to appeal.

Third, if needed, an appeal meeting should be set up. In dismissal or
disciplinary action procedures this can happen after sanctions have been
imposed. In either procedure the employer must inform the employee of the
outcome of the appeal. Only after these steps can the parties go on to an
employment tribunal.

Firms are free to personalise the procedures to suit their own business
needs. However, I would urge all employers to check their existing procedures
and ensure that they meet our minimum standard, because if a case does end up at
an employment tribunal and the minimum procedure has not been followed,
penalties will be imposed. For the employer, this could mean paying financial
costs.

These procedures should ensure that most disputes are discussed in the
workplace, allowing each party to attempt a resolution of the issue to
everyone’s satisfaction. In some circumstances, however, the minimum standards
do not apply – if, for instance, either party is abusive or violent.

Undoubtedly, these standards are already being met by the large majority of
employers. This is particularly true in companies that have an HR function,
because human resource departments understand the value of good communication
and following standard procedures. But figures show that there are still around
800,000 firms that either have inadequate or non-existent procedures in place
to deal with disputes. Last year, employment tribunals dealt with 98,000 claims
based on work disputes, ranging from problems over pay and conditions, to
racial prejudice and sexual harassment.

The Government hopes that its new legislation will encourage more openness
and communications in businesses, and we look to HR departments to check that
their procedures meet the new minimum standard.

www.dti.gov.uk/er/resolvingdisputes.htm

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By Gerry Sutcliffe

Practical tips

What you need to do by October

– Understand the legislation: what you need to do and by when

– Review existing grievance and disciplinary procedures, and
amend them if necessary

– Put new procedures in place (if existing procedures do not
meet the minimum standards)

– Brief employees

– Issue written material outlining the changes

– Send off for additional materials, if required

– Follow the new dispute resolution minimum three-stage
process: a written statement; a meeting between both parties; an appeal meeting,
if required

– Be aware of, and follow, the Acas code, in addition to
implementing the new process

– Know where to go for more information

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