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Play by the rules, or else

Katy Wedderburn warns that staff and managers in colleges are about to face tough new employment laws.

A RECENT survey found that a high proportion of UK employees leave their jobs, not because they feel they are underpaid or undervalued but because they cannot get along with their boss.

Management training, especially on issues such as performance measurement, conditions of employment and disciplinary procedures, has never been more important.

A great many managers, not only within the education sector, struggle as a result of the plethora of employment legislation. But this year a new Employment Act will increase significantly the importance of following specific procedures in relation to disciplinary and grievance issues and will have an enormous impact on the management of employees.

The Act will require minimum disciplinary and grievance standards in all employment contracts. Compensation awards may already be increased by up to 50 per cent by a tribunal if statutory minimum standards are not met.

The training we provide emphasises the importance of understanding the application of the new rules, not just by lecturing, but by workshop practice and role play. The key lies in helping managers to have the confidence to handle situations through an understanding of how the standards should be applied.

Mock disciplinary hearings and employment tribunals show how the law works in practice and highlights the type of approaches that would be considered unacceptable.

Sometimes there is a challenge in FE institutions when managers are permitted to work to their own rules and there is a culture which does not follow fair employment procedures.

Employee relations are a key issue in a sector where, for example, lecturers may be underperforming and the culture of the institution can be characterised by limited turnover of staff, and an attitude of "them and us".

Ideally, employees in every occupational sector, not least education, should be subject to regular appraisals and review of performance. In the FE sector, it can take between six months and a year to weed out underperformers who are letting down both the institution and the students it serves.

Many cases end up at employment tribunals because the skill sets available to managers are not sufficient for the task which needs to be undertaken.

The message is that anyone with responsibility for managing staff must be aware of the parameters they have to work in. Not least, they must ensure that every contract of employment contains detailed terms and conditions, for example, referring to disciplinary and grievance procedures, equal opportunities, e-mail and internet use.

The new Act will also put an onus on employees to make sure that they, too, follow minimum grievance procedures before they will be entitled to claim constructive or unfair dismissal at a tribunal. Failure to do so will allow the tribunal to slash any compensation by up to 50 per cent.

Historically, employers thought that if they dismissed an employee within their first year of employment they would be immune from unfair dismissal claims except in particular circumstances.

Under the new procedures employers will find that, if an employee is dismissed without notice and without the minimum standard procedures being adhered to towards the end of their first year of employment, the tribunal may determine that, had notice been given or the statutory procedures complied with, the employee would have had the necessary qualifying length of service (one year's continuous service).

New rules on maternity, paternity, adoption leave and flexible working, which are part of the Government's policy of encouraging family friendly policies in the workplace, will be implied in contracts of employment.

To some extent they may already be incorporated into the contractual rights offered in further education establishments. But the message to managers is that they must play by the rules or expect to pay the consequences.

Katy Wedderburn is a senior associate specialising in employment law at MacRoberts Solicitors in Glasgow.

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