Saturday, February 18, 2012

Why the Tories are half-right about making it easier to sack mediocre people

A few months ago a little known venture-capitalist called Adrian Beecroft wrote a report for the Prime Minister, setting out a new proposal which would make it far, far easier for firms to fire people. It would allow any firm to release any person it chose, with compensation if, in the firm's view, things weren't working out. No hearing, disciplinaries, five-point plans - just a end to employment.

Of course, this didn't go down well with anyone, including the Lib Dems who, rightly, saw it as tipping the scales too far the othr way, creating a nervy workforce terrified of getting the wrong side of the person above them at work. Put into practice, Beecroft would, almost certainly, have led to abuses that would exceed those currently imposed by the army of people who use the current law to persecute their employer.

What we need, therefore, is something that runs down the middle. Here is where personal experience comes in. As an employer, I have been on the wrong side of more than one Employment Tribunal. Several in fact. Most are 'settled' meaning, that you do what is necessary to make the drain on your time presented by such matters disappear.

I have always been amazed at how many people can sign away the right to have their grievance properly looked at in a quasi-judicial setting when a fairly small cheque is waved under their nose. Friends I know who have not done this and gone all the way nearly always win - but feel like they have lost, such is the cost in time and lawyer bills.

In short, the system is indeed broken and needs to be reformed, urgently. Ask any charity CEO (not normally the most right-wing of people) what they think over a glass of wine and, to a person you'll get the same answer: the system is a joke, it deters employment, it causes massive stress and cost and it rights few wrongs.

After another few glasses, you'll also get plenty of sarcasm about the self-infated judges (there are three for each of these hearings) who are paid God-knows-what by the taxpayer for poring over what are mostly 'he said, she said' issues, that, by a freak of legal nature, have ended up in a courtroom.

So what needs to be done? Three things. Firstly, there needs to be a place for 'safe conversations' which allow the employers to say 'This ain't working and we would like to discuss a possible exit for you' without this leading straight to a solicitor's letter.
At the moment, it is very hard to have a normal conversation without your words being thrown back at you as evidence of 'constructive dismissal'.

Secondly, every application for a Tribunal should first be put through ACAS before it is allowed to go to a Tribunal. This allows a mediated settlement rather than the well-remunerated confrontations so beloved of the legal profession. Finally, every person who wants to initiate a Tribunal should personally put up a returnable deposit which is lost if they lose. This will, I can guarantee, get rid of most vexacatous claims in one go, including many of those I have had the displeasure of dealing with.

Sound familiar? Well, that, by and large, seems to be the shape of what's coming out of the Coalition following the shock and awe caused by Beecroft earlier in the year. I can't say enough about what a good idea this is. It will be good for jobs. Small employer are terrified of Employment Law as it stands. One nasty incident can ruin a business. You really think carefully about taking people on as a small firm. This can't be right.

Plus the spike in claims in recent years is fuelled by a 'No Win No Fee' industry which is based on exploitation of bad law by bad law firms. As anyone who knows me well is aware, I am not the biggest fan of the legal establishment. With notable exceptions (and there are MANY, including good friends of mine), they are, I find, non-value-adding and venal.

Because they are a 'profession', many lawyers seem to believe they have a right to charge five to ten times what everyone else does for what is, a lot of the time, an administrative job. The reputation of law has, like that of politics, taken a dive precisely because of how they have responded to opportunities like Employment Law.

This will soon change. Up and down the land people will cheer. Charity CEOs, small business people, colleagues of underperforming staff, HR managers, operations manager. Everyone, in fact, except the drongos who bring the majority of claims and their lawyers.

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