Employment law: five things you should know

Co-founder and director of citrusHR, Kirsty Burgess (pictured), shares her advice on employment law with YB news.

citrusHR is the UK’s most comprehensive employment support service for new and smaller businesses.

Employment law is vast, complex and ever-changing, and businesses need to stay on their toes to avoid being wrong-footed by a law change. In truth, there are more than five things you need to know. But get these five right, and you’re most of the way there.

1. Provide written contracts of employment

Written contracts of employment make everything clearer for everyone. Work-time, holidays, sickness and notice requirements can all be set out in clear terms, so that both employer and employee know where they stand should a problem arise.

An amazing number of businesses find themselves piecing together their terms of employment in the midst of a crisis from vague exchanges in emails, unreliable memories of verbal exchanges and the rights given by law.

Failing to provide written contracts of employment within two months of the start date is also unlawful.

2. Do not discriminate

All employees are protected from discrimination by the Equality Act 2010, and you must be very familiar with its details to stay on the right side of the law.

Discrimination can happen in a thousand ways, and does not have to be deliberate and intentional. You can discriminate indirectly with working conditions or rules that disadvantage one group of people more than another.

Unlike unfair dismissal claims, where there is a limit on how much compensation an employee can get, there is no ‘ceiling’ in discrimination cases. Discrimination claims can involve substantial compensation for injury to feelings, and some compensatory awards are designed purely to punish the employer.

You may find it helpful to have policies in place that make it clear that you will not tolerate discrimination or behaviours such as bullying and harassment, and stating your disciplinary procedures. You can get these policies from a HR consultant or employment lawyer; they come as standard with citrusHR.

3. Be careful with problematic employees

It is important for employers to follow a proper procedure where there are disciplinary, underperformance or sickness absence issues to minimise the risk of their employees making a claim. For example, if you fire an employee for being off sick too often or for too long, you could find yourself faced with a discrimination claim if the employee is suffering from a disability.

4. Don’t say goodbye without a settlement agreement

A settlement agreement is where an employer and employee agree to bring their employment relationship to an end. It usually involves an employer paying the employee a sum of money (sometimes similar in amount to a redundancy payment).

In return, the employee agrees not to bring any claims for unfair dismissal, discrimination or other potential breaches of the employment law. The agreement becomes a valuable shield from claims for the employer.

As an employer, you should always consider a settlement agreement if you are seeking to dismiss an employee under circumstances where they might be able to bring a claim.

5. Employment law is always changing

This is probably the most important consideration. In recent years, the mandatory retirement age has been removed and there have been changes to the way settlement agreements are made. The right to make a flexible working request is now available for all employees, not just those with children or those caring for disabled adults.

Soon, the new pension rules and new provisions for paternity leave will come into force. Some parts of employment law can change every year, such as the National Minimum Wage.

The time you invest in gaining a working knowledge of employment law will be paid many times over in the costly problems you’ll be avoiding.

Although a nuisance, it is a good idea to keep up to date with changes in the law to be sure you know what’s changing and can avoid expensive mistakes you didn’t know you were making.

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