One of the big fears for the owners and managers of small businesses is that at some point an employee will take them to an Employment Tribunal. Even if they win the case, the time, cost and stress to the owner is high. And even if the employee’s claim is apparently trivial or patently false, the thought of having your employment practices crawled over by a judge is understandably unpleasant. Matters aren’t helped by tabloid tales of companies being hit for huge compensation awards.
So the introduction of tribunal fees in 2013, which has seen a fall in tribunal claims of between 60-70%, has to be good news for small companies. Now at last businesses can get on with running effectively without fear of a discontented ex-employee making a claim against them.
Except…the pendulum may have swung too far. Most small businesses I encounter (and in my line of work that’s a lot) want to be “good” employers, they want to do things legally and properly and aren’t looking to make life as unpleasant as possible for the staff they employ. If they do something “wrong” it’s usually a genuine mistake rather than a deliberate attempt to defraud their employees.
The problem though is that when individuals can’t enforce their rights, it leaves the door open for the unscrupulous employer to ignore the law, safe in the knowledge that no-one will do anything about it. Honest, law abiding businesses that want to do things correctly are the ones that suffer, as this sad tale from the newspapers this weekend shows. The fact that the business owner is a Tory MP adds a little irony but the key point is that here is a responsible person trying to do the best for his business and employees, but is undercut by those operating at the margins – or even outside – the law.
Think about it this way. If you own a car, you pay your car insurance (no doubt moaning, as I do, about the cost of it). You do because it’s the law to have insurance. Yet if there’s no method of enforcement, why should you bother? Hundreds of thousands are estimated to be driving without insurance, taking the chance that they won’t get caught. And if they are – usually if they are involved in an accident – it’s the honest driver who bears the cost through increased premiums. If the premium becomes unaffordable you either give up your car or you drive uninsured too.
I’m not arguing that tribunal fees should be abolished completely (there’s no reason why the taxpayer should bear all the cost when they don’t in any other area of the law), but that the system needs to be rebalanced – for the benefit of decent employers as well as employees.