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Why curse when you can Acas?

Sun, 29th Feb 2004

ONE OF the consequences of changing business demographics is the move from a collective to an individual approach to employment rights. At the same time, the workforce is becoming more diverse, and the number of directives and regulations is growing - minimum wage, working time, discrimination, there's even an ageism directive on the horizon. There are no fewer than 100 employment rights.

With more people needing to know more about more things, it's not surprising that there are gaps in employment knowledge - and they are holding UK businesses, particularly smaller ones, back, says the employment advisory service Acas.

In a survey to be released on Tuesday, Acas finds that 25 per cent of small- and medium-sized employers aren't familiar with recent changes in employment law and their implications, even though almost all the 500 companies surveyed agreed that good communication on employment matters is an aid to business. Nearly the same proportion feel they don't have the information or know-how to deal effectively with workplace-related problems.

What Acas calls the 'rhetoric and reality' gap is also true for employees. While 93 per cent think good communication on employment rights is positive for business, 31 per cent say their bosses deal with an issue only when it becomes a problem. At the same time, 81 per cent of employees confess they aren't familiar with new employment regulations.

Some of these gaps may be wilful - as in the case of the 1,000 or so women dismissed every year for being pregnant, according to the Equal Opportunities Commission. But both direct and indirect costs are high. Employment tribunal cases have levelled off at 90,000- 100,000 a year but the size of compensation awards is going up.

In any case, 'tribunal cases are the tip of the iceberg', notes Jerry Gibson, Acas regional director for London. 'There are 1 million job changes a year. Of course, some are people moving on to a better job but how many happen because someone is nursing a grievance that isn't being dealt with?'

The cost of recruiting is now pounds 4,000 per employee - but that may be far outweighed by the loss of the experience that leaves with the employee, notes Gibson. As the makeup of the workforce changes, there is 'a compelling business need' for employers to know the ins and outs of employment law as it applies to diversity and gender - or at least to know where to turn for advice.

Acas itself mirrors the changing face of UK employment relations. Since its founding in the bad old days of 1974, just before the winter of discontent and the three-day week, Acas has been best- known for its conciliation role. It has played a behind-the-scenes role in almost every important UK labour dispute. With the fall-off in strikes, the decline of the unions in many sectors and the rise of the small firm as an employer of choice, however, it finds itself with an increased educational and advisory role.

Nowadays, Acas is keen to emphasise that only 10 per cent of its 900 or so employees are involved in resolving disputes. Most of its effort goes into a variety of support services (training, information and advice helplines, workshops and consultancy), mostly free or at cost, aiming to prevent small issues becoming large problems in the first place.

'Prevention is better, and cheaper, than cure,' says Gibson. 'Once cases get to tribunal, attitudes harden. We want to get more issues solved in the workplace, before they cause damage. Usually that's what everyone wants, but a lot of people don't know where to go for help.'

In the absence of union representatives to keep employers up to the mark or even a dedicated human resources person in small companies, the organisation takes 750,000 help calls a year, split evenly between individuals and employers.

The website gets 500,000 hits a month. Most queries still centre on issues of discipline and dismissal, often around competence and performance improvement. Redundancy and layoff issues are next, and wages and conditions come in third, with a growing category focused on equality, diversity and gender matters, including pregnancy. As the result of a recommendation of the Better Regulation Task Force, Acas is piloting a mediation programme for small companies which has the objective of intervention at an early stage. Another novelty is 'partnering' with organisations such as the Engineering Employers' Federation, chambers of commerce, regional development agencies and even the British Medical Association to improve Acas's visibility and increase its reach.

The aim is to convince people that observing employee rights and running an effective business are compatible, Gibson emphasises. The two should go together. In ninety-five per cent of cases employee rights are commonsense. When it comes to the tricky last 5 per cent, the rule of thumb should be call Acas before you do something irretrievable, he says.

The Observer, 29 February 2004


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