Employers often report that they are drowning in a sea of legislation-and that their businesses are suffering as a result. A recent survey on regulation from the Institute of Directors highlighted employment law as the single greatest concern of IoD members and other business leaders with more than 82 per cent rating these issues as a major or significant distraction from core business activities and 75 per cent citing them as an impediment to job creation.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
“Very often employment law is presented as a firefighting technique and the whole area seen as a mine field ,” says Professor Pat Leighton, Jean Monnet Professor of European Law and chair of the Personnel Executives’ Employment Law Club( known as the Peel Club).
“However,” she adds, “if people look at it in context and try to make sense of it, they can understand where the law is coming from. This in turn leads to an understanding of how it might help with good HR practice.”
The Peel Club meetings contain plenty of opportunities for individual advice and general networking but Leighton sees the issue for HR professionals not as a lack of material but of understanding.
“There is a plethora of information on employment law, from publications to DTI websites, you name. The problem for HR people is not accessing information but in translating that into procedures.”
The answer, it seems, lies in how to apply knowledge. But first you have to gain that knowledge and the HR practitioner will find that there are plenty of experts willing to share what they know.. The only question is, which type of employment law training is the most effective use of time and resources-particularly when knowledge and understanding could face the most rigorous tests of all- defending tribunal claims?
Broadly speaking, employment law training is falling into four camps: generic courses, awareness-raising conferences, new media and tailored in-house events. Employment law firms, commercial bodies of professional organisations like the CIPD and specialist publishers remain the key deliverers of this training, offering tutors who are either lawyers or a combination of lawyers and specialist trainers.
More than 2,000 people a year attend courses and events run by Eversheds, where head of client training Nicholas Evans notes a difference between awareness-raising events, such as conferences on upcoming legislation and topic-based courses on “enduring” areas such as absence.
“People take different things away from courses,” says Evans, “they often realise later that it has highlighted where they are vulnerable and come back for more tailored information.”
Often, he adds, the value of the interaction with other delegates is initially underestimated.
“HR people are willing to share information and there is a camaraderie between them,” he says, emphasising the value of informal learning networks.
HR professionals are now showing a greater enthusiasm for employment law, says Nick Jones who, at international law firm Hammonds, is responsible for the national seminar and workshop programme for HR and people management specialists.
“When the economy dipped a couple of years ago there was a tendency for people not to invest as much in training and to shift away from being pro-active employers into becoming re-active employers. They are now realising that they need to invest more,” he says.
Jones can see two major factors behind this trend. “More senior HR professionals are moving into business roles,” he says, pointing out that ambitious HR people need a broad understanding of legal issues if they are to aspire to such roles and be able to demonstrate what expertise they can offer.
“In addition, lean HR teams realise that managers need to understand the new discrimination regime on sexual orientation, religion or belief and the new statutory discrimination and grievance procedures which come into force in October,” he says.
So there is a dual need for HR people to inform themselves in order to be able to convey information to others or ensure their development and to further their own career development-with this last point driven by continuous professional development .
Employment law forms an important part of the CIPD qualification, says CIPD membership development manager Christine Williams
“For many members, keeping up to date with changes in legislation will form a key part of the CIPD programme they set themselves each year,” she says. “Indeed, our professional code of conduct , which all members are bound by, requires members to demonstrate a continuously updated competency in order to provide professional knowledge, advice and support,” she says.
The Information and Consultation of Employees Regulations 2004, which come into force in April 2005 are also fuelling demand , says Jones.
“In effect the ICE regulations open up the possibility of changing the culture of an organisation,” he says, “and we are finding that a lot of organisations are looking for information up front.”
Hammonds offers update seminars covering case law round-ups and a workshop series which is topic-specific such as on the subject of equal opportunities.
A key element in ensuring the success of any training is that it has been designed to meet requirements thrown up by a training needs analysis.
In employment law terms, this means that if an organisation is forecasting a business change or the impact of forthcoming legislation then it could order a tailored training session to suit.
Jones offers the examples of collective redundancies where the protective award is up to 90 days’ pay per employee, or TUPE transfers where employees could be eligible for 13 weeks’ pay each.
“Once you have got 100 or 300 employees affected and it’s a reasonably paid workforce , it can run into six-figure sums,” he says. “And if the business at board level is not aware it can have a serious impact on the nature of the deal. The board needs to factor such issues into strategic planning.”
Situations like this often call for tailored in- house training, delivered by legal practitioners.
“Conveying the law is often the easy bit but translating its application into practice is far more valuable for a client and requires hands- on experience,” he says.
This is where employment law training occupies a different area from other aspects of training. Its not just about facts, it is about being able to understand a certain culture or parlance along with enough background knowledge to make sense of its meaning and the foresight to second guess its impact or likely evolution.
” It is a heavy subject,” says co-ordinator of emproveHR (sic) Paula Rome. Run by law firm Lewis Silkin, emproveHR has declared its aim is to “enable HR professionals and managers to make decisions and implement strategies with the confidence of knowing how to handle the employment consequences.”
Rome makes the point that the best way to get this information across is to create ” a useful learning environment which is comfortable and relaxed .”
For Rome this might involve case studies, role play, videos, and powerpoint presentations.
“To help delegates come to it in a way that they don’t switch off you need to employ many different training techniques and to make it applicable and fun, ” she says.
Blended learning, which brings together many types of training media from books to classroom to online learning is a technique which has swept through all types of training since the new millennium and employment law training is no exception. Many law firms offer extranet facilities, such as a dedicated website for clients to pick up news snippets or basic aspects of legislation that employers don’t need to talk to a lawyer about, or updates emailed to desktop PCs. The point of these tools is that they are just that – tools to be employed in the learning mix or blend.
Targeted television programmes also have a role to play in the learning mix according to Addelshaw Goddard which has launched the Employment Channel.
Subscribers access the employment channel portal via a server.
“It is a television news service which is meant to provide essential instruction on key areas which line managers need to know and understand, and there are also news programmes aimed at HR managers and in-house lawyers,” says legal director Joe Glavina who heads up training for lawyers and frontline training for clients.
“This is a way of keeping yourself up to date regularly,” says Glavina. He sees the channel as a way of feeding bite-size information to an audience. “There is such a lot of employment law,” he says, “it is important and it is so dangerous to leave it and then go to an all-embracing conference – how much can anyone take in like that?”
Evaluating and monitoring learning is always a key area of concern for training and personnel professionals. With employment law training it takes on the added impetus of proof that an organisation has worked to enforce a policy.
The new media which are being employed for training can help the cause, and increasingly more so in the future, predicts Jones at Hammonds:
“There will still be the need for face-to- face delivery of relevant , practical sessions from people at the sharp end, ” he says, “but web -based information followed up by a questionnaire or quiz will become more popular as it means that a company can keep track of who has ” attended” its training.”
This is particularly important in equal opportunities training, he points out, where vicarious responsibility comes into play.
“The more you have trained people and taken practical steps to stop discrimination happening the better.”
Case study – Matalan
At out-of-town value retailer Matalan, national HR manager retail Jo Mackie thinks that for HR professionals like her the best form of training in employment law is to participate in regular in- house programmes run by retained employment lawyers who understand the business you’ re in.
“Employment law is such a massive area that it’s easy to miss what’s coming up,” she says.
She relies on regular updates, held every other month, both for herself, and for the HR team to look at forthcoming regulations and to look ahead at their impact.
“In Matalan we have HR managers out in the field who are advising around 15 stores each so it’s important to keep knowledge high,” she says.
Matalan also employs lawyers to run quarterly updates on future developments and consultation regulations for the senior HR team.
“We are moving Matalan forward to be proactive in best practice,” she says.
She estimates an annual spend of 10,000 on training events and points out that the benefits of maintaining best practice and not being drawn into tribunals easily cover that bill.
One of the greatest incentives to participate in regular legal training is “that you need to know what you don’t know,” she says. ” It helps you to understand which questions to ask and which pieces of information are important.”
Case study – Claire’s Accessories
As training and resourcing manager for Claire’s Accessories, Gillian Ince is responsible for ensuring the appropriate design and delivery of training materials.
And when it comes to training managers in employment law she is keen that it will be in a language they understand so that the right messages can be disseminated across the stores.
“We have just finished a package for our district managers on the Disability Discrimination Act,” she says. Comprising videos, notes and handbooks, the packs told the district managers what they needed to know and what and how messages should be cascaded to the store managers and staff.
“It’s about finding the right level to convey learning,” she says. “Our HR people have regular updates from employment lawyers and our key people put together policies. We need to put this across appropriately for our audience.”