Legal headaches: what legislation is worrying HR professionals the most

New Labour’s ongoing agenda of reform in the workplace has created a challenge for HR managers having to keep track of a growing amount of regulation. But what particular areas of employment legislation are giving HR the most problems?

At the CBI, senior policy adviser Richard Wainer said it is the cumulative impact of all these regulations that is itself the biggest issue for employers. “Businesses are spending more and more time ensuring they comply with regulations rather than getting on with business,” he said. “It is a particular issue for small businesses that have limited resources. If the government is to introduce more bills for employees, it must also support employers.”

Wainer pointed to the ongoing changes to family friendly legislation as a case in point. As maternity and paternity rights are extended and flexible working privileges broadened out to include those caring for adult relatives, keeping track of statutory pay becomes an increasing administrative burden on companies, he said.

At housing association, the LHA-ASRA Group, HR adviser Kate Davies said the high-profile nature of the family friendly legislation can lead to problems.

“Employees see the headlines about increased maternity and paternity rights but they don’t have all the facts,” she said. “This can cause an issue, because people just assume they can take it without asking, but it has to be requested in writing, has to be taken in blocks and a lot of it is unpaid.”

For Chris Davies, a professional support lawyer at law firm Halliwells, “the huge potential” to fall foul of growing amounts of discrimination law is a concern for employers. “Employers are increasingly responsible for the actions of employees in the workplace,” he said. “And if a group of employees go to the pub after work – this can be seen as an extension of the workplace.”

Age discrimination, which comes into force in October, will be particularly problematic, as it demands a radical cultural change of attitudes in the workplace, Davies said. “It may be that using a comment such as ‘you old codger’, will be seen as bad as offending someone’s religion. Even comments on birthday cards may be taken into account,” he added.

“With discrimination laws, it’s not a defence to say: ‘I didn’t mean any harm, I was just having a bit of the laugh.’ It is not the intention of a comment that is taken into account, but how it received.”

For Audrey Williams, a partner in the HR group at law firm Eversheds, the laws governing disability discrimination are particularly problematic because they can apply in all areas of employment, from recruitment and performance, through to issues of absence.

“The disability discrimination law is about creating a level playing field for employees. Employers must make reasonable adjustments, so it may be unfair to count some absences on an employee’s record,” she said.

“Weighing up what an employee needs and whether this is reasonable for them and for the business is a difficult balancing act.”

Scottish Widows HR business partner Derek Liddell’s biggest legal headache is the current lack of clarity around pensions.

“Its on our radar screen because we don’t know what we can and can’t do. We are unsure of what we can do in terms of keeping people on. Older staff are coming to us who canÍt afford to retire and we are uncertain with the advice to give,” he said.

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