As working patterns change, claims against employers have risen, writes NICOLA GRAY
As we look ahead to the summer months it seems that, at long last, the light at the end of the tunnel is becoming ever brighter. The success of the vaccine roll-out has been a game changer, and governments across the UK are now going full throttle in easing restrictions for all of us. But, and it’s a big but, some challenges remain, not least in dealing with the hangover of what has been the biggest economic shock of our lives, arguably even greater than the financial crisis.
One of the most difficult areas for the business community to handle has been around employment – whilst the furlough scheme has been invaluable, business owners and leaders have had to consider how best to manage staffing issues during this unprecedented period and it is now becoming clearer that a substantial boil has been growing and if it is not attended to we could well see the recovery stopped in its tracks.
Employment law can be a complex area for businesses at the best of times, especially for smaller and medium sized firms who may not have the greater resourced HR and legal teams that larger corporates benefit from.
Many of these firms and their employees have been under huge strain over the last few months and official figures from the Ministry of Justice revealed last year that more than 800 single tribunal claims were lodged in Scotland between April and June, up 21% on the same time the previous year.
If only to emphasise the increasing level of friction, at Aberdein Considine in the last couple of months we have seen a 60% rise in contentious queries – where employees have sought to challenge business decisions affecting their employment.
Furthermore, recent figures from ACAS estimated that “workplace conflict” is costing UK employers £28.5 billion every year, just over £1000 for every employee.
It would seem that as we move through the pandemic, patience may be wearing thin, both for employers trying to survive and recover, and employees who feel they possibly have little to lose in raising issues.
As furlough begins to taper off at the end of the summer, realistically, the current situation is likely to worsen.
‘Any recovery could feel out of reach if management focus is diverted towards trying to deal with an ongoing pipeline of employment issues’
Of course, spurious claims from employees can carry the danger of significant costs awarded against the individual, however the claim has to reach a preliminary hearing first, already causing the former employer a potential cost of thousands of pounds.
As a business getting back to its feet, any recovery could feel out of reach if management focus is diverted towards trying to deal with an ongoing pipeline of employment issues.
So what is the answer? First and foremost, identify issues and deal with them at the outset. The figures from ACAS indicate that a failure by employers to deal with conflict early could be costing businesses billions every year. And that’s on top of any reputational cost, and the challenge of recruiting in the future.
Undoubtedly the best form of defence is early action. Before decisions are taken, ensure any processes or changes are lawful and executed in a fair and appropriately transparent manner.
It might sound simple, but of course it’s not. There may always be times when some conflict arises between what a business feels it needs to do and the potential impact on its people. The law does allow for this, but it must be followed appropriately.
There’s no doubt that understanding and adhering to all of the laws and regulations around employment can be like wading through treacle, particularly when you want to be using all of your energy to build and grow your business.
If you’re not sure what your next step should be, get some advice, it really could be the difference between thriving, and just surviving (at best).
Nicola Gray is a partner in employment law at Aberdein Considine