New rules on dealing with disputes at work

The regulations that govern how employers handle discipline, dismissal and grievance issues in the workplace changed as from 6 April 2009. The new system is designed to be more straightforward and flexible and fair, the aim of which is to help employers resolve disputes before they reach the point of an expensive employment tribunal.

The existing legal procedures for dealing with discipline, dismissal and grievance issues at work are dropped.

Instead, they are replaced with a revised Acas Code of Practice. This expects employers and employees to follow the 'fair and reasonable' procedures for dealing with disputes as set out in the new code. The code does not apply to redundancy dismissals.

Revised Acas code

Essentially, the Acas code is based on principles that treat everyone fairly and that are transparent. These principles need to be observed in disputes.

For example, issues should be raised and dealt with promptly. Meetings and decisions should not be delayed unreasonably. Employers should always behave consistently. The facts of a particular case should be established through any necessary investigations.

Employees should be told of any problem in writing and provided with an opportunity to set out their case before any decisions are made. Employees should also be allowed to bring someone with them to formal disciplinary or grievance meetings, and they should be entitled to appeal against any formal decision that's made.

In instances of grievances only, the employee should explain the cause of the grievance to the employer at a meeting which both the employer and employee must make every effort to attend.

The employer should decide what is an appropriate course of action and tell the employee about this in writing. If the problem is not resolved, the employee should be allowed to take the grievance further.

Grievances

The code defines grievances as concerns, problems or complaints that employees raise with their employers. The word 'grievance' does not need to be used in the complaint.

When the complaint is presented in writing, it is probable it will qualify as a grievance, which means it should be treated it as such. The complaint should be acknowledged, and the employee invited to a formal meeting.

Disciplinaries

Acas defines disciplinary situations as those that include misconduct and/or poor performance on the part of the employee. If a business has a procedure in place for dealing with the performances of its employees, this can be used; but the principles of 'fairness' set out in the code need to be observed.

Employment tribunals

Unlike the old system, the revised code is not mandatory. This means that failing to observe the code does not necessarily make a person or business liable. In other words, employers no longer face the prospect of automatically losing a tribunal claim for failing to follow the procedures to the letter. The main emphasis now is that the process of disciplining a member of staff or attempting to solve a dispute or grievance is fair.

However, employment tribunals will take the code into account when considering cases. The tribunal will examine whether any failure to follow the code was unreasonable; but it will also look at specific factors such as the size and resources of the business. Should the tribunal judge that the failure to follow the code, by the employer or the employee, was unreasonable, it may increase or reduce any awards by 25 per cent.

Employment disputes in 2009

With the change in regulation, employers may want to know how they should deal with disputes that straddle the 6 April dateline. If the trigger event occurs on or after 6 April 2009, they should follow the new procedures. If the trigger event occurs on or before 5 April 2009, they should follow the old procedures.

Preparing for the new legislation

If your procedures for dealing with grievance, dismissal and disciplinary issues already comply with the pre-6 April 2009 laws, it may not be necessary to change them to comply with the new code.

However, it does give you the chance to review procedures to make them easier to understand and apply. For example, a more relaxed and informal approach to dealing with problems at work could be drawn up.

The Acas Helpline, on 08457 47 47 47, is open 8am-8pm Monday to Friday and 9am-1pm on Saturdays. A copy of the new code can be downloaded at www.acas.org.uk

This is, of course, only a brief outline of the new rules, and any employer who is unsure about the effects on their employment policies should seek professional advice.