A New Approach To Resolving Workplace Disputes
The Department for Employment and Learning’s Employment (No.2) Bill has passed its final stage in the Assembly.
The Bill is the culmination of a three-year review of systems for resolving disputes in the workplace. It repeals the current procedures associated with raising a grievance and sets in place a less legalistic approach, allowing greater focus to be placed on addressing conflict rather than on legal compliance.
In addition, the Bill makes changes to improve the operation of industrial tribunals and the Fair Employment Tribunal and sets in place a legislative framework which will allow employees the right to request time off for training, to be introduced when there has been an improvement in the economic outlook.
Dr Alan Scott, of the Employment Relations Policy and Legislation Branch at the Department for Employment and Learning explained:
In recent years there has been much talk of the costs associated with failure to deal effectively with workplace conflict. If left unresolved, matters often progress to an industrial tribunal, with all the financial and emotional costs the legal process entails. Only a small percentage of tribunal cases actually reach a full hearing; most are withdrawn or settled beforehand. Regardless of the outcome, too often the result of taking the legal route is a broken employment relationship, lost productivity, damaged staff morale, and associated difficulties that might have been avoided had the problem been diagnosed earlier and addressed differently.
A recent wide-ranging review carried out by the Department for Employment and Learning has revealed widespread agreement that a fundamental cultural shift is needed in the way that Northern Ireland plc deals with workplace disputes if the region is to secure a competitive advantage in today’s difficult economic climate
On 3rd April this year, the first steps towards the hoped-for cultural shift will be taken with a series of changes to the legal framework governing workplace disputes. In a move welcomed by most, the confusing three-step statutory requirements around workplace grievances will be dropped in favour of a ‘good practice’ model providing employers and employees with simple principles-based guidance, facilitating a sharp focus on the dispute at hand rather than procedural compliance. A new Labour Relations Agency Code of Practice will explain the steps that employers and employees should take.
Existing arrangements for dealing with disciplinary and dismissal issues will stay the same. Where a decision could lead to an employee’s dismissal, employers and employees should continue to operate the generally well understood three-step procedure: put the matter in writing to the employee, hold a meeting to discuss it, and if necessary follow up with an appeal.
Of course, prevention is better than cure and the Department is looking at how it can assist small employers to be ‘right first time’ in discharging key employment rights responsibilities. The Department will shortly begin work with employers, trade s and the statutory and voluntary sectors to develop more consistent approaches to advice and guidance so that those facing, or potentially facing, a workplace dispute will know what their options are.
One option is to engage the assistance of the Labour Relations Agency. The Agency is independent, is respected by both sides of industry and its services remain confidential and free of charge. It has a strong track record in helping parties reach conciliated settlements. Surprisingly, the Department’s review showed that many people remain unaware of the Agency’s services and so work is underway to raise their profile through more active promotion.
It would be naïve to assume that more emphasis on early resolution signals the end of the road for industrial tribunals. Complex or acrimonious disputes are and will remain a fact of life and will continue to require a legal remedy. With that in mind, the reform programme includes measures to provide a more efficient and streamlined tribunal service. For instance, from 3rd April, a single tribunal will be able to hear all aspects of a fair employment case, where currently two separate tribunal hearings may be required.
3rd April is an important date for the diary, but it marks a beginning as well as the end of a process. If cultural change is to be effected, it is must be gradual and long term. It will require the commitment of employers, trade s and their advisers, as well as ongoing work from Government. The longer term work will include the development, in association with the LRA, of revamped statutory arbitration arrangements designed to provide a faster, cheaper, non-legalistic and less stressful alternative to a tribunal and an investigation into the merits of establishing an Employment Appeal Tribunal.