No need to roll back workers’ rights after Brexit

There is no need to dilute the level of employment protection for employees in the UK, according to new research published by the CIPD. The study surveyed more than 500 senior HR professionals and employers about their views and experiences of implementing employment law. Now that Article 50 has been triggered, it is inevitable that the debate about the role of employment regulation will rise sharply up the public policy agenda. Over the past decades, EU directives have affected workers’ rights across the UK economy and a crucial question is, what should happen to the significant body of employment law that derives from Brussels?

Complying with employment regulation is a necessary part of operating a business. However, the narrative should not focus on compliance alone, but on the responsibility of HR professionals and business to do the right thing. Many businesses espouse the value they place on their people in their company reports but how often does the rhetoric match the reality? In today’s modern workplace there is a compelling case to approach employment regulation in a more holistic way, in a more human way, which will encourage a potentially far greater return on investment from people in terms of their well-being, engagement, commitment and loyalty.

The findings from the research hints at such an approach, with a majority (52%) of respondents reporting that their organisation goes beyond what is required when implementing employment law. This reflects the importance with which many employers view employment protection for employees, as well as the value they place on approaching regulation in a way that goes beyond the letter of the law. If most organisations are exceeding their statutory requirements, this does not suggest a climate whereby employers perceive regulation as a burdensome bind of red tape that impedes their day-to-day operations.

Necessary but not always easy to apply

General perceptions of employment law are positive, with almost two-thirds of respondents (63%) agreeing with the statement that ‘implementing employment law makes a positive contribution to employee relationships’ (just 9% disagree). More than two-thirds (68%) agree that implementing employment law increases employees’ sense of fairness and trust in the employer (just 10% disagree), and 69% agree that implementing employment law improves the quality of employees’ working lives

Most survey respondents regard all 28 areas of employment law listed in the survey as ‘necessary’, including unfair dismissal (93%), data protection (92%) and redundancy (92%).

Whether or not specific laws are necessary is a fundamental consideration, but another important criterion to help determine their effectiveness is whether or not they are well drafted and easy to apply. The majority of employment laws score less highly in this regard, with transfer of undertakings (TUPE) laws – often criticised for their complexity – rated bottom in the table, with just a third (32%) of employers regarding TUPE laws as well drafted and easy to apply. Gender reassignment and agency workers laws also score relatively poorly (33% and 36%, respectively).

It’s not always plain sailing when implementing employment regulation, though, and organisations identify the top three obstacles to the effective implementation of employment law as: 

  • a lack of resources (staff/budget/time) – ranked as a barrier by 44% of all respondents
  • too much legislation – ranked as a barrier by 34% of all respondents
  • a lack of awareness of changes to legislation – ranked as a barrier by 31% of all respondents.

More training needed for line managers

Responsibility for managing people on a day-to-day basis has is now typically devolved to line managers. Given this wider context, it’s not surprising that employers rank ‘training for line managers’ as the best method for translating changes in employment law into employment practice at work.

However, the research also reveals that too few organisations pay adequate attention to equipping managers with the skills and knowledge to carrying out their complex and challenging role: among our survey of 508 organisations, nearly a quarter (23%) do not train line managers in employment law to help ensure they are competent to manage people. This proportion rises to 50% in the case of small organisations (2-49 employees) but drops to 11% for large employers (250-plus employees) while 21% of medium-size employers (50-249 employees) don’t provide training.

Ensuring that their people managers are educated and aware of at least the core elements of employment law should be a priority for all employers. This will help to give them the confidence and capability to not only manage but motivate their teams to give of their best.

What does the future hold?

The Prime Minister Theresa May pledged in her Lancaster House speech in January 2017 to protect and build on workers’ rights after the UK has left the European Union.  Around the same time, Chancellor Philip Hammond suggested that if Brexit negotiations failed to provide the UK with access to the single market then it might have to change to a low-tax, low-regulation economy to enable it to compete - so there are already mixed messages in the political arena. This raises the prospect that the issue of employment regulation and workers’ rights could yet become a factor in Brexit as negotiations progress.

In the view of the CIPD, the UK’s employment regulation framework provides sufficient flexibility for employers and appropriate employment protection for workers. However, Brexit should be viewed as an opportunity to enhance the quality of some aspects of EU-derived employment law, as well as consulting on reforms to improve the application of certain laws in practice. Both these aims can be achieved without undermining the level of protection these laws afford to people at work. We will be making this case to Government as the debate about the UK’s relationship with Europe develops.

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