Workplace revolution gives food for thought

It is official. The employment landscape has changed dramatically. The past year has seen the biggest shift towards individual rights ever witnessed in the past quarter of a century.

Acas is an organisation which is not known for putting out headline-grabbing statements. But these are the words from its chairwoman Rita Donaghy as the body publishes its long-awaited annual report today.

The soothing orange and blue pages of its well-presented annual report disguises the bad news it contains. The sting is in the stark figures that are highlighted: a 32 per cent rise during 1999-2000 in individual complaints dealt with by Acas conciliators where employees have or want to take their case to an employment tribunal.

Even though three-quarters of the 164,525 cases are resolved before they reach the tribunal system – a real success for Acas – it shows the time and expense HR practitioners have to put in to defend cases brought by disgruntled employees.

The shift away from the old-style union-employer strife is to be welcomed but the pace at which tribunal claims are rising is disturbing for employers.

And it is not going to stop. DTI Secretary Stephen Byers has been reassuring employers during visits this summer that there is no more employment legislation on the horizon, to the relief of companies. It seems he has lulled them into a false sense of security as yet another directive from Brussels raised its head last week.

The EU’s Employment and Social Policy Council agreed the new EU Anti-discrimination directive last week which makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against staff on grounds of age, sexual orientation, religion or disability. This has come through at a speed which has surprised the profession even though it will not come into UK law for another six years.

Employers are likely to face a tidal wave of costly claims from older staff in particular, which will lead to an explosion of claims going to tribunal. This is food for thought as thousands of HR professionals up and down the country gather in Harrogate for the annual CIPD conference this week.

Many think the rise in claims has turned employment relations into a bonanza for lawyers. Where will it all end?

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