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How can SME's best address the rush of new employment legislation?

Employment legislation has always been a challenging area as government attempts to balance the needs of the employer and the employee. However, change has often been measured, possibly even slow, thus small to medium size businesses (SME's) have found time to review each amendment in-house. In the last three years the legislation for this sector of Jersey's economy has been shifting at a far faster rate with Guernsey promising to follow suit. Employers now find themselves facing the introduction of new laws that will fundamentally alter the way employees are employed but now at breakneck speed.

The challenge, then, for businesses is to ensure that any new legislation is thoroughly incorporated into all their employment and HR systems. For example, discrimination legislation based on race came into force in Jersey at the beginning of September. Only one year from that date, whilst employers are trying to get used to this, sex discrimination will be added to that Discrimination Law along with the family friendly legislation (maternity rights etc). With this legislation coming so fast and with so many provisions, there is the very real danger that it will come into force without the employers able to become fully compliant. Failure to grasp both the wider issues, but also critically, the finer points could bring punitive costs from trips to the Employment Tribunal. Ignorance of the law will never be accepted as a defence.

The key issue here is time. Whilst much of this legislation is being welcomed the rate of delivery is not. SME’s simply do not have the time to face the opportunities of an improving economy whilst also ensuring required legal compliance. There are options available, and as a Jersey employment law specialist you might expect that I would be keen to promote the value of turning to a dedicated consultant for the advice that is needed. However, the options are a little more subtle than that, less problem-at-the-time based and more about outsourcing. We will know your business and understand your requirements.

I have certainly been asked by a number of SME's, across a range of business sectors, to tackle specific tasks and this I continue to regard as an important function of an employment law specialist. However, given that we are entering a new world of employment legislation akin to the shift from landline telephones to mobiles in scale of change, there is a strong case to be made for a far closer relationship between business and consultant than ad hoc work can allow or a large legal firm can offer cost effectively.

For example, there are substantial hurdles in front of employers in attempting to stay abreast of the latest legislative shifts when HR and employment law are not core functions within the business. These are specialist areas which are time heavy and require expert focus. A good deal of best practice in HR revolves around process. Paper trails and archived correspondence ensure that businesses are well structured to deal will staff issues. Handbooks and the importance of consistent HR paperwork, creates a foundation of collective understanding for both staff and managers. It is not that employees all see their career prospects ending at a Tribunal award but that good practice ensures that a business is legally compliant.

This requires a global view that is better achieved by a personalised approach offered by a consultant who can be embedded within the business but is not part of the incumbent culture or distracted by past practice. From there they can offer impartiality and have a free hand to challenge any ingrained ways of working whilst also offering the dedicated service that larger law firms struggle to achieve and at a far lower cost.

A working environment is a demanding place that sees myriad staff strains and ways of working. Statutory maternity leave, paternity leave, employees seeking a job share or move to part time contracts all require an understanding of the business' culture and the legislative landscape in equal measure. This is surely the domain of the bespoke legal consultant.

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