The occasional dispute in the workplace is inevitable. I tell employers that if they try to be considerate and fair, they will probably not go far wrong. But bad things happen even to good people. Maverick staff and/or unexpected work situations cannot be anticipated or avoided in every case. Even simple conversations that start with a grumble can escalate into far less constructive and emotional disagreements that are not always preventable by employers.
However UK law does provide for a framework for dispute resolution designed to be helpful and pragmatic for employer and employees. Acas (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service), which was formed over a century ago, exists partly for this purpose: to help resolve employer/employee disagreements without them spiralling into expensive litigation in the courts and bad publicity.
Since April 2014, unhappy employees must first approach Acas to try to settle a dispute with their employer ahead of taking other action at the employment tribunal. (That applies to nearly all employment tribunal claims). If they do not do that, their claim will be invalid (and if the three-month time limit for bringing the claim has passed, it is possible the claim will be out of time). Employers can choose whether or not to engage with the early conciliation.
Acas has said that the service is proving a real success in achieving its objectives and this is explored in more detail in the attached article by Jo Faragher, published this week.
Of course, settlement is not always the best course of action. Settling a worthless claim, though it might be financially beneficial in the short term, has unpredictable long term consequences; for example, if your workforce think you’ll settle anything, this might trigger a pattern of similar claims.
Quite fundamentally also, conciliation is not a perfect solution. The purpose of the court and employment tribunal system is to promote “justice” and to achieve a balanced outcome that is proportionate and fair to both parties; settlement is about efficiency, rapidly moving on and working amicably and constructively together. While the latter are highly commendable goals, depending on the exact circumstances of any case, they are not always in an employer's best interests. Moreover, when promoting settlement, settlement is Acas’s sole aim – unlike your lawyer, it is not their job to advance your case and bring about the best solution for you.
The attached article suggests that both employees and employers seem to be very happy with ACAS. Is your experience the same?
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Early conciliation has helped to avoid seven out of 10 potential employment tribunal hearings, Acas has found.