Employment Law Update

Employment LawA Round Up of Recent Developments

With a new Employment Bill working it way through Parliament and expected to come into force in April 2009 we have focused on a few of the Bills main provisions. There have also been a number of recent developments in relation to protection from harassment at work.

The Employment Law Bill

Over the last decade the employment law landscape has changed beyond all recognition. The last major statute was the Employment Act 2002 and it would not be unfair to ask why another Employment Law Act is needed so soon. The simple answer is that the 2002 Act, which was intended to reduce litigation, resulted in more litigation and made the employment rules more complicated. Rather than disputes being settled internally parties were force to turn to the Courts (in the form of the Employment Tribunals) to decide whether statutory minimum procedures had been met.

The good news is that the Bill is intended to simplify the law. The main change is the removal of the statutory minimum procedures for dismissal and grievance proceedings. There will be a new Code of Practice for employers to follow when making a dismissal but it will not be mandatory to follow this Code. This will not mean that employers or employees can act as they please in cases of dismissals or grievances. The new bill still encourages parties to settle their disputes without resorting to litigation however the law will be applied more flexibly. If a party decides to behave unreasonably ignoring Codes of best practice then an Employment Tribunal will have discretion to increase or decrease an award by up to 25%.

Only time will tell if the Employment Bill proves to be a success, but any simplification of the law is to be welcomed particularly in an area of law which is plagued by complication and change.

Harassment at Work

You will probably be aware of laws that protect you at work from racial or sexual discrimination but less well known are the protections your employer should provide against harassment and bullying.

The first recent change is an extension of an employer’s duty to protect an employee from harassment by a third party such as a customer or client. This extension of the law came into force on 6 April 2008 as a result of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 (Amendment) Regulations 2008.

The extended liability of employers to protect against bullying is actually based on a law made in 1997 to protect the victims of stalkers. (The Protection from Harassment Act 1997). The law based on the 1997 Act was extended in a groundbreaking House of Lords decision in the case of Majrowski v Guy’s Hospital Trust 2006. It is now possible for an employee to make a claim in negligence against their employer if:

  • An employee can prove they have suffered bodily or psychiatric injury (this could include distress and/or anxiety)
  • The damage should have been foreseeable by the employer (This test would certainly be satisfied where an employee complains about bullying)
  • The employer has breached their duty to protect their employee by failing to take reasonable steps to prevent the injury

Following the Majrowski case there will be a growing number of claims brought against employers. The key from the employees’ point of view is not to suffer bullying in silence. On the other hand a good employer will quickly recognise that it is better (and potentially cheaper!) to provide calm, non-threatening working environment rather than one where employees feel threaten and intimidated by their co-workers.