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Tackling legal changes

Chris Evans

The government is bombarding companies with employment law changes, from handling flexible working requests to managing sickness absence, but are managers keeping on top of them, and do they generally know their legal rights and wrongs? Chris Evans asks the experts

It is unlikely there are any managers in the country who know, understand and work within all the employment laws on a daily basis. To be fair, there are probably few lawyers who know all the ins and outs of every employment regulation. Most companies rely on their HR department as the first line of defence, and consult lawyers if legal action might be involved in an employment dispute. 

“Most managers are in a position of authority because they’re good at their job, loyal and reliable, but they’re also expected, almost as if they’ve had a USB stick placed in their elbow, to know a hell of a lot about employment law, which is unrealistic. It takes time, research and guidance to get your head around it,” insists Carole Sayer, a guidance adviser and expert in employment law at Acas.

For smaller business managers this is particularly difficult as they are unlikely to have the time, money and resources to understand their legal rights and obligations. Their chief concern is reaching targets for the business, meeting tax and data requirements and handling employees efficiently. 

But lack of time and money, in the case of SMEs, or having big teams of lawyers and HR experts to face the danger, in the case of larger businesses, doesn’t absolve managers from their legal responsibilities. “Every manager should have a system in place to catch up with employment law,” says John Palmer, senior guidance managing editor at Acas. 

“If it’s something they can’t do often then at the very least they should check in around April or October because those are the two times of year when the government makes most of the legislative changes, as well as increases statutory rates.”

Both Carole and John also recommend managers check out the Acas website for information and advice on employment law matters, and, if possible, attend their training courses, which deal with issues like bullying, absence, and the latest law changes, such as flexible working and shared parental leave.
These two issues are particularly important at the moment, stirring debate and discussion among employers and employees. As of June 30, every employee has the right to request flexible working (as opposed to just those with children under 17 or certain carers), as long as they’ve been at the company for 26 weeks or more. In turn the employer must consider these requests in a reasonable manner, with the right to refuse them on business grounds.

“This is actually more about best practice, and less about legal requirement,” says Mike Emmott, an adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. “The right to work flexible hours has been around for a while. It’s just about making sure there’s a dialogue and understanding on both sides about whether or how it will work.”

Managers need to make sure the arrangement works for the employee and the business, but there are plenty of a-typical options available, such as zero hours, working from home or even job share, which ensures cover for unexpected absences. “Not every flexible request is going to work, but it can be surprising for employers how well they might turn out, if handled properly,” says Palmer.

Shared parental leave

The shared parental leave law change, however, could prove more complex. From October 1, parents of children born or matched for adoption on or after April 5, 2015, will be able to choose how they share the care of their child during the first year after birth. Mothers will still take at least the initial two weeks following the birth, then they can choose to end the maternity leave and the parents can opt to share the remaining leave as flexible parental leave. Also under this new shared parental leave it is proposed to allow the husband, civil partner or partner of the pregnant women the right to unpaid time off to attend up to 2 ante-natal appointments. 

“The most important thing with this is for employees and employers to discuss the best course of action in advance,” insists Tom Neil, an expert in shared parental leave. “The big change is that previously the parent (usually the mother) would be expected to take a big block of leave, but now they could potentially have two weeks shared parental leave, then two weeks working, then two weeks off again. But, obviously this would need to be agreed with the employer.”
The overall aim of the new law is to get father’s involved more in raising their kids from an early age. This is also why they’ve introduced time off for antenatal classes. In principle, it’s a sensible move, but, in practice, it might not be so easy.

“I think relatively few dads will take up the offer because they only get something like £130 a week during the paternity leave, which is unlikely to cover their earnings,” says Emmott. “Plus, there’s the issue of eligibility. If you’ve got two parents in full-time jobs then they’re both going to know their rights and can decide easily. But if one is self-employed or part-time, then it becomes an issue of maternity benefits, which are more like social security than employment law. There is a lot of bureaucracy in parental leave, and this could make it harder for parents and their employer.”

However, all the experts agree that managers need to address employment law seriously, and take time to discuss and think through any course of action. “If a manager has an employment law concern or issue involving a staff member, instead of jumping in and making snap decisions, it is better to say ‘I’ll get back to you’, then look it up, ask colleagues and/or seek independent advice,” concludes Palmer. 


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