In the complex and rapidly changing world of employment law, effective corporate training is becoming increasingly important in helping to avoid costly tribunal claims.
The past 10 years have seen a boom in the number of domestic and European laws and some organisations are now turning to more innovative and creative ways of educating their workforce on employment legislation.
An employment tribunal is usually the last place any employer would want to be, but at AXA PPP Healthcare, managers are experiencing the system first hand, without actually facing a claim.
The healthcare specialist has developed a series of detailed simulations using actors to demonstrate exactly how to avoid legal claims, or deal with the situation if it gets as far as a tribunal.
The radical training programme used actors to highlight the problems created by a fictitious religious discrimination claim that ended up at an employment tribunal.
For 10 days about 1,800 staff were exposed to a complete simulation of the claim which included professional actors posing as employees, a film of the events and dummy news coverage of the damaging legal process.
The initiative culminated in a mock employment tribunal which was staged live for about 90 of the company’s line managers.
HR director Mark Moorton says this more creative approach helped staff understand exactly what is at stake if workplace law is broken.
“This is so different from the usual ‘death by PowerPoint’ events associated with legal training that it really has the impact to get the message across effectively.
“It engages with people and helps them understand what happens if mistakes are made. I think staff were surprised when they saw just how easy it is to end up at a tribunal and how serious the consequences can be,” he says.
By making complex issues in legislation more real and immediate, the programme got staff talking about the law, with an internal site dedicated to the simulation recording more than 16,000 hits.
Moorton believes the scheme, which was delivered by actors from Steps Drama, gave managers a far deeper understanding of employment law and company procedures on discrimination and harassment.
“As HR professionals I think we really need to look at new ways of training staff in employment law. Organisations need to be more open about new ways of getting through to people. There is a real opportunity for HR to shape new ways of training and help avoid claims by engaging with staff,” he says.
Julian Fidler, a partner at law firm Synergy Employment Law, helped to develop the AXA training and thinks the drama-based approach can be more effective in reaching all staff.
“It’s really important to illustrate best practice and help employees understand the legal issues in the workplace. More and more organisations are starting to realise that it is far better to tackle problems before they arise.
“Most employers tend to simply fire-fight these sort of legal issues when something goes wrong, but they need to start being far more proactive,” he adds.
Probing the back-story
Having an innovative training system in place can also be an important way of fighting claims at a later date with tribunal panels now asking probing questions about the procedures in place to stop things like discrimination.
The Co-op is another organisation that has used this sort of approach to educate managers about the importance of adhering to employment legislation.
A workshop called ‘Respect Works’, designed to promote the importance of diversity, used drama and role-playing to highlight how bullying and harassment can have a massive legal impact.
The workshop and training film on ageism, sexual orientation, disability and religion used exaggerated inappropriate behaviour from managers to demonstrate just how damaging they can be.
Amanda Jones, head of diversity at Co-op, says the Respect Works training workshop helped to raise awareness of employment law among 140 senior managers.
“Organisations cannot afford to ignore bullying and harassment in the workplace because it destroys teamwork, morale and commitment. The workshop showed how discriminatory behaviour can occur when respect breaks down,” she says.
Tribunals on DVD
Acas, the advisory and conciliation body, has also got in on the act with a DVD to help guide employers and individuals through the employment tribunal process.
The Essential Guide to Employment Tribunals is the first training DVD the service has produced. It uses a dramatised case study to show viewers what happens at a tribunal.
Chief executive John Taylor says the film highlights the stress and disruption a tribunal can cause and is designed as a tool to prevent legal problems. It is also intended to provide an accurate picture of what will happen at a tribunal.
“Having the correct procedures and practices in place will help organisations avoid employment relations difficulties. Of course, there will always be occasions where people just can’t find common ground. Even the best-run organisations may become involved in a tribunal case. If a case does go all the way, then everyone involved needs to be properly prepared,” he says.
Fife Ethylene Plant used a specially-designed game to help workers understand safety regulations, eventually making it mandatory for all staff and contractors.
The training uses a board game-style system to raise awareness of safety hazards and compulsory legal rules in the use of safety equipment and procedures.
The game, designed by Elgood Effective Learning, lulls players into a sense of normality and then challenges them with serious procedural scenarios that they could face in their day-to-day roles.
Mike Emmott, employee relations adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), says about half of all organisations have a budget for employment law training, but the complexity of new legislation can make it difficult.
He says many employers are now looking at more innovative ways to educate staff, but warns that there is no panacea in what is a hugely complex area.
“Any training needs to really grab people’s attention and make the law real for staff, but this can be really expensive. Good HR professionals should be making staff understand the issues, or they will be running the risk of expensive claims.
“Anything that really gives this more life and helps engage with staff is hugely effective but that doesn’t mean you have to go out and spend thousands of pounds. The problem is that awareness is not the same as understanding – and understanding is not the same as compliance,” Emmott adds.
However, he feels that some of the latest legal developments are so unfathomable that no amount of glitz or innovation will make things easier for employers.
“Anyone acting out the grievance and disciplinary procedures would end up doing more of a Shakespearian tragedy than a play,” he jokes.
Understanding the law
According to research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, about half of firms have a dedicated budget for training managers and staff in employment law. However, the sheer amount and complexity of workplace legislation is forcing employers to look at new ways of raising awareness.
The use of actors and business simulations can make the consequences of breaking the law more immediate for staff, but keeping up with all the latest legislation is still a major challenge.
The focus is often on forcing home the reality of an employment tribunal and what will actually happen on the day, but by the time matters progress this far it is often too late.
Although it is vital that staff understand the seriousness and formalities of the tribunal system, employers should concentrate on training that helps to minimise the risk of employment law being breached in the first place.