If we are to believe what we are told, there are still austere times ahead and virtually no industry is going to come out the other side unscathed, including the food retail sector.

It’s no exaggeration to say that businesses of all sizes and types are going to have to keep their  belts tight and operate at maximum efficiency. However, according to a major new survey by Bibby Consulting & Support – www.bibbycas.com – , experts in Employment Law and Health & Safety legislation, most businesses feel they are working with one hand tied behind their back because of all the ‘red tape’ they have to deal with.

In particular, the Bibby Employer Survey* found that senior managers had real concerns about recent “ridiculous” laws giving employees an increasing amount of power and they felt their businesses could perform better if employee power was curtailed.

Respondent after respondent echoed this sentiment and said that so much employee-friendly legislation had undermined their ability to manage staff. A very clear picture emerged of company owners and managers who felt the contract for employment was so one-sided that it seemed as if employees had the rights while employers had the obligations.

To illustrate the point, one senior manager asked incredulously: “Who is the boss?” Others complained that they saw the “balance of power moving away from the employer to the employee”, that employees were “able to get away with anything”, and that there were “more and more rights for the employees and none for the business owner”. More managers talked about laws being “geared up to favour the employee, taking rights and protection away from the owner”. Some complained about “increasingly burdensome rules & regulations in employment law” with the “balance swung too far in the employee’s favour”. And one reckoned the ‘playing field’ “sloped very much in favour of the worker”.

Such strongly held opinions tinged with anger and frustration cannot bode well for employer-employee relations. In this way, extending the rights of employees by too much could be seen to have the potential for damaging their future prospects rather than improving them.

Every company operating in the retail and food sector knows that it is absolutely vital to comply with the latest legislation relating to the treatment of employees. But many know only too well that this is easier said than done and the Bibby Employer Survey showed that businesses of all kinds were desperate for help to unburden themselves of ‘red tape’.

The Institute of Directors (IoD) recently calculated that last year company directors spent around 17 hours a month – or £7,674 per director – filling in forms, reading compliance guidance and requesting legal advice. This is equivalent to more than £110bn in 12 months and something which the IoD identified as a major barrier to business growth.

The Bibby survey supported these estimates with feedback from companies who said that they were devoting far too much valuable time and money to fire-fighting legislation. Senior managers said they would rather spend these precious resources on training employees, developing their skills and motivating and supporting them to improve the business.

An extremely powerful message coming out of the Bibby Employer Survey was that excessive bureaucracy was bad for businesses and the most recent changes had been anything but employer-friendly

Specifically, the survey revealed considerable concern and frustration – in some cases real anger – about the difficulties inherent in employing staff in the UK. Many managers felt that disciplining or getting rid of staff was extremely difficult.  Respondents complained about disciplinary action being a “laborious process” and handling under-performing employees was increasingly difficult. One commented that disciplining staff required “too many procedures to follow”.

Moving away from assessing the general employee relationship to specific legislation, a large proportion of the respondents were still struggling to grasp the basics of the 2010 Equality Act, which they perceived to be too complex. Indeed, many managers admitted that they were genuinely fearful of this new legislation and were very concerned about how much they might have to change the way they operate in order to comply with it.

A particularly noteworthy theme of responses to the survey was that three quarters of companies felt they needed external assistance when dealing with employee issues. In particular, they said they needed help with the employment contract, with disciplinary/misconduct issues, dismissal/unfair dismissal and managing tribunal processes.

On the issue of employment tribunals, the survey asked: “What is your feeling about your organisation’s preparedness to handle a claim?” Unsurprisingly just 8.5% of respondents said they could cope without external assistance and a massive 69% felt that they would have to bring help in from outside. Employment tribunal claims are on the increase but most companies who took part in the Bibby survey said they felt vulnerable to vexatious claims and that the employee was, in effect, in the driving seat when it came to making allegations that could damage a company. Respondents thought that employees’ rights had been strengthened to the point that companies were virtually powerless against staff making unfounded claims.

Irrespective of the size or nature of a business, or how well staff are managed, having to defend a case at an employment tribunal can be an extremely intimidating and stressful situation. With this in mind, Bibby Consulting & Support is holding practical, hands-on ‘mock tribunal’ training sessions for businesses. These courses prepare delegates for a tribunal, enabling them to learn exactly how and in what way they can fulfil the vital role as a witness for the business in a tribunal hearing.

The course helps delegates to understand the tribunal structure and the types of claims it handles. Delegates learn, through a ‘case example’ what is needed to prepare for a hearing, what can be done to improve the chances of success, and the most effective way to give evidence. They were also given strategies – and practice – on how to cope as a witness at a tribunal.

In a similar vain, the Institute of Directors recently said that it wanted to see workers being charged at least £500 to take their employer to a tribunal, consideration for the removal of employees’ rights to ask for flexible working and the abolishment of the right to request paid time off for training.

However, Bibby Consulting & Support wouldn’t recommend going that far. For example, while it was a good idea to introduce a fee that employees would pay when taking a company through the tribunal process, £500 was perhaps too much and therefore unlikely to be accepted by the present government.

Said Michael Slade, Managing Director of Bibby Consulting & Support: “We would suggest introducing a more reasonable fee – say in the region of £100 – for employees wanting to take an issue to tribunal. This would deter vexatious claims and serial litigants, and those with a genuine grievance needn’t worry with the fee being recoverable if the claim is successful. However, there should also be an element of flexibility for no fee to be required in cases involving low paid workers.” With regard to flexible working, we wouldn’t support the idea of completely scrapping it, opting instead for simplifying an unnecessarily complex process

He added: “All reputable businesses understand that there will be times when complainants have a legitimate case and will want to support employees through standard grievance procedures. But most companies would welcome the ability to filter out the weaker claims and certainly those that have no substance at all.”

On the other issues, Slade said: “While we feel that flexible working is beneficial to employers and employees alike, there should be no reason why this cannot be agreed on an informal basis. It is important that requests for flexible working are considered and accommodated where possible but it is difficult to see what benefit is achieved by the current onerous procedural requirements. And there is simply no point to the current training request scheme.”

As well as offering advice and support for a company if something goes wrong, Bibby specialises in providing the kind of services that help businesses to support and protect their employees to keep problems to a minimum. As every company knows, a happy member of staff is less likely to take legal action against their employer than an employee who feels they are being mistreated, disrespected and not valued.

Tailoring its human resources (HR) support to individual companies, Bibby Consulting & Support partners retail businesses in managing their most important assets – people. All businesses can benefit from lower staff turnover, easier recruitment, less absenteeism and more productivity. To this end, Bibby recognises that sophisticated selection and recruitment methods, flexibility of terms, a high level of employment security and staff wellbeing all offer considerable business benefits.

Bibby Consulting & Support is one of the UK’s leading providers of compliance management services. The company enables employers and senior managers to become and remain compliant in employment law, health and safety and environmental legislation. Based in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Bibby Consulting & Support is part of the Bibby Line Group, a family run business with a 200-year history of specialising in retailing, financial services, logistics, shipping, marine and offshore services.

Bibby Consulting & Support’s raison d’être is to safeguard businesses and business owners through the expert management of human resources and ensure essential compliance with key legislation in the complex fields of safety environmental and employment legislation. Being part of an international organisation, Bibby Consulting & Support has the capacity to provide scalable solutions. So however complex or sensitive an issue, or however large an organisation is, the company is able to add real value to any business.

The employment law services Bibby offers cover a range of issues, including comprehensive HR systems and procedures, clear and concise terms & conditions and handbooks. Companies also have access 24 hours a day seven days a week to a support line managed by qualified employment law specialists.

Michael Slade said: “Businesses in the food retail sector face many challenges nowadays. Competition is ever fiercer and deadlines ever tighter. As pressure on the bottom line continues to increase, it is vital that modern businesses maintain a firm grip on their two most important and valuable assets – people and reputation.

“We make sure that clients operate within the legal framework and are kept up-to-date with changes in thinking and legislation. Our aim is to ensure that not only will the basics be right but also that clients are fully protected from frivolous and potentially damaging claims. We provide organisations with the guidance they need to take their business to the next level in best practice while delivering a real competitive edge.” Slade concluded: “This survey shows all too clearly that companies are very worried about the effect that years of legislation have had on shifting more and more power into the hands of employees. Obviously nobody wants to go back to the days of employees only having half of the rights they do at the moment – that is not what this survey said – but there is a clear desire to make the playing field a little more level for employers.

“Having businesses in the food retail sector feeling that they are being held back by current legislation – indeed some of them literally frightened by what they could be liable for – does not create a good environment for them to be facing these extremely challenging times. Something needs to be done to help these companies and it needs to be done soon.”

* In February 2011, Bibby Consulting & Support carried out a large-scale piece of business research. The Bibby Employer Survey investigated thoughts, feelings and concerns in relation to human resource issues facing managers and owners of organisations across the UK. In all, 2,410 employers and 1,000 employees were invited to take part and a remarkable total of 424 clients participated in the full survey. This provided a robust sample size, with all industry sectors and size of organisations represented.

Bibby Consulting & Support

Tel: 08453 100 600

www.bibbycas.com

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