The ongoing reform of employment rights bodies, the government review of the industrial relations framework together with the major overhaul of data protection regulation at EU level provided the backdrop to this year’s event. The aim of the 2014 conference was to brief delegates on upcoming changes but also to provide a timely reminder of how to get the basics right including the recruitment process, the company handbook and internal investigations.
The conference was chaired by Caroline Jenkinson, Deputy Chair of the Labour Court.
Minister informs delegates that work on drafting legislation to establish new structure has commenced
Reform of the State’s five employment rights and industrial relations bodies is delivering real results, including the elimination of the backlog for Rights Commissioner hearings, which was at 142 days in 2010, the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Richard Bruton TD told delegates during his address to the conference. The Minister outlined some of the other tangible results delivered by the process to date including the introduction of a Single Complaint Form that deals with over 100 first instance complaints to replace the 30 forms previously in use. Over 70% of all complainants now use this form. Moreover, complaints are now acknowledged and employers notified, on average, within five working days - prior to the introduction of the single portal this was taking up to eight months.
Hot topics in employee relations and industrial relations
Maeve, McElwee, Head of IR/HR, Ibec in her address highlighted three main areas of work on the employment law agenda that are currently being shaped into legislation, namely; the critical and complex area of collective bargaining, the somewhat controversial protected disclosure (whistle-blowing) legislation and the on-going reform of the employment rights bodies.
Data protection in the digital age
The theme of the presentation given by the Data Protection Commissioner Billy Hawkes at the Conference was Data Protection in the Digital Age. The Commissioner reflected on how social networks have changed our view of privacy, surveillance in the workplace and data protection legislative reform. Mr Hawkes also spoke about the Commission’s recently launch annual report which he said demonstrated that an employee taking a client list to a new employer is emerging as a recurrent issue.
Right to privacy at work raises daily questions for employers
At the conference, Aoife Newton, Ibec solicitor, gave a practical and insightful view of Ibec's most frequently asked data protection queries. Aoife's presentation focused on the guidance employers require in dealing with data protection concerns such as data access requests, the retention of data and the use of CCTV footage in disciplinary matters.
Twelve out of twelve
Loughlin Deegan presented on the 12 most important legal cases in the last 12 months which will affect the way HR practitioners approach issues in the workplace. Among the cases were several relating to addressing absence due to alcoholism. Employers frequently find themselves frustrated by employees with series absence problems who fail to acknowledge that they have a drink problem until they are actually dismissed. Such late admissions make it very difficult for employers to help those employees address problems which might otherwise be soluble.
The lesson from recent case-law is that employers need to be very careful before dismissing such employees. Even when an admission of alcoholism comes extremely late in a long disciplinary process, employers will be obliged to consider whether there are alternatives to dismissal. Alcoholism is a disability, so employers need to consider whether there is any reasonable accommodation which can be reached which would enable the employee to continue in his or her employment. Only if those final efforts fail to reach a solution will an employer be safe in dismissing the employee.
Back to basics
Ibec solicitor Pauline O’Hare’s presentation focussed on getting the best out of contracts of employment and the fundamentals of the company handbook. In emphasising the need for employers to conform to best practice in order to avoid the pitfalls of recruitment, Pauline highlighted how a badly conducted interview or selection process which does not conform to best practice can be vulnerable to a claim of discrimination. In particular, Pauline focused on the need for transparency and objectivity in a selection process, including establishing clear and objective selection criteria and the importance of taking and retaining interview notes. She also highlighted how the company handbook is an effective means of communicating policies to employees, informing them of the terms and conditions of employment, benefits, policies and rules that apply. If drafted and implemented effectively it can serve as a helpful tool, in defending claims, where employees have been made aware of the standards expected of them and the consequences of not meeting those expectations. Furthermore, the case law presented to attendees highlighted the difficulties for employers who seek to rely on policies that are out of date, ambiguous and not effectively communicated.
Keeping internal investigations under control
At the event Tim O'Connell gave a brief presentation and chaired a case-study exercise on the theme of "Keeping Internal Investigations on Track". Points covered included what triggers an investigation, from an alleged offence against company rules to an inter-personal 'clash of personalities'. Consideration was given to who is most appropriate to conduct the investigation and the importance of using existing company policies and procedures as guidance for moving the process forward (as well as considering the various statutory and non-statutory Codes of Practice for best practice).
The importance of clear terms of reference was stressed and the possible use of an external investigator explored. The difference between informal and formal avenues of dispute resolution was touched on as well as the objective of the procedure, primarily fact-finding in most instances.
The distinction between investigative as opposed to disciplinary proceedings was referenced, as was the role of natural justice and the importance of an objective and proportionate outcome.
The case study posed some interesting questions and evoked considerable reaction and discussion among delegates.
Monday, 19 May 2014