The UK Government has recently published the snappily-titled “Employment Relations Research Series 123 – Employer perceptions and the impact of employment regulation”. Unlike many learned studies which take many months and much money to complete but which seem only to confirm the obvious, this thoughtful research does identify a number of underlying problems for the Government’s employment law reform programme. That said, readers may not be entirely comforted by the solutions proposed.
The research set out the different approaches to HR and employment law issues that large and medium sized employers often take compared to small businesses.
Unsurprisingly, large employers often had detailed policies dealing with many aspects of the employment life cycle, with in-house or external HR and legal support to ensure those policies were properly implemented and enforced. These larger employers often had a good understanding of the law gained from their professional suppliers, and were accordingly more comfortable in the personnel decisions that they took.
Small employers often preferred to deal with their employees informally, without reference to established procedures, believing that a more formal approach would destroy the “family” approach to staff management, which in turn would impact upon morale at work. They often learnt about changes to legislation just from the media, which (not least by its focus on the sensational and the varying political bias of each newspaper) could provide an erroneous perception of the law. Also unsurprisingly, constant amendments to employment law have left small businesses confused, some believing that the statutory dispute and dismissal procedures repealed in 2009 were still in force. Anyone still struggling on with that uniquely misbegotten regime could certainly be forgiven a sense of some disillusionment, putting it at its lowest.
The research concluded that even though employers had concerns about the extent to which employment law acted as a brake upon their business, the actual cost of complying with current legal requirements was not especially significant. Much the bigger concern was the obvious one – that the law is in places unclear, and that uncertainty as to what it allows in any given case scares employers and sometimes deters them from making the HR decisions their business needs. In other words, what is needed is not necessarily different law or even less law, but a better awareness of what we already have.
It was suggested that greater information and support for small businesses, primarily through a single official internet information portal, could demonstrate to them the ease with which they can in fact comply with employment legislation. Cynics could rightly question the benefit that this would bring. Where so much of employment law hinges around whether the employer is acting “reasonably”, and where that concept is so dependent on the specific facts of the case, how can any portal hope to provide a clear steer in every situation?
It could be argued that to deal effectively with this issue, the Government will need to change not the law but employers’ perception of it. However, how can it properly take on emotive headlines such as “Hair Hitlers – EU rules to ban hairdressers from wearing rings and heels” (another carefully considered contribution to the annals of journalism from The Sun this week)? Where tabloid newspaper headlines are unable to distinguish between patently silly blue-sky proposal, party political sound-bite and actual law, it is not surprising that employers of all sizes can feel assailed by new legal obstacles from time to time. And since “Employer Behaves Correctly Shock” is not really news, there is no counter-balancing coverage in the press to show that only a tiny proportion of Tribunal claims brought actually succeed.
The Government clearly needs to do something. Unfortunately this report suggests that its constant tweaking of the less important loose ends of UK employment is not really it.