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The phrase employment disputes can send shivers down the spine of even the most seasoned business owner. For many small businesses, these disputes can be a significant source of concern, often resulting in costly and time-consuming tribunals.

In this article, we'll explore the key aspects of employment disputes, offering insights and tips for small business owners on how to navigate this challenging terrain.

Issues in the workplace

Workplace disputes can take various forms, from allegations of discrimination to disagreements over contractual terms and conditions. These issues can disrupt the harmony and productivity of your team, and if left unresolved, may escalate into formal disputes. Addressing these matters promptly and professionally is important for maintaining a positive work environment and avoiding costly legal proceedings.

You should always strive to foster a culture of open communication and conflict resolution. By addressing disputes at an early stage, you can often prevent them from escalating into more significant problems. Encourage your employees to voice their concerns and be prepared to listen and take appropriate action to resolve the issues.

Types of employment disputes

In employment disputes, claims can encompass various areas, including unfair dismissal, discrimination, breach of contract, equal pay, and more. Here’s an overview of the main types of claims within the workforce:

1. Unfair dismissal

Unfair dismissal claims are among the most common employment disputes. Employees with the qualifying length of service may claim that their dismissal was not one of the five potentially fair reasons for dismissal and the employer did not act reasonably in dismissing them. In addition, some dismissals will be deemed automatically unfair, and the employee will not need any qualifying service to make such claims. To try to avoid such claims, you should follow proper dismissal procedures, adhere to the various employment laws in place and document the reasons for termination.

2. Discrimination claims

Discrimination claims can arise from actions or decisions that treat employees unfairly based on certain protected characteristics, such as age, gender, race, disability, religion, or sexual orientation. Employers must ensure that all employees are treated fairly and that discrimination is not tolerated in the workplace. Effective anti-discrimination policies and training can help prevent such claims.

3. Breach of contract

Breach of contract claims occur when an employee alleges that their employer failed to fulfil the terms and conditions of their employment contract. This can include issues related to pay, working hours, benefits, or job responsibilities. This is why it’s important that you draft clear and comprehensive Employment Contracts to minimise the risk of breach of contract claims.

4. Equal pay claims

Equal pay claims arise when an employee asserts that they’re not receiving equal pay for work of equal value compared to a colleague of the opposite gender. Ensuring that your business has a transparent pay structure and that employees are compensated fairly based on their roles and responsibilities is crucial in preventing equal pay claims.

5. Harassment and bullying claims

Employees may file harassment and bullying claims if they’ve experienced hostile or offensive behaviour in the workplace. Such claims can be based on various factors, including a hostile work environment, offensive comments or discriminatory actions. To avoid these claims you need to foster a culture of respect and implement anti-harassment policies to address and prevent these issues.

6. Whistleblowing claims

Whistleblowing claims are brought by employees who believe they have suffered negative consequences, such as unfair treatment or dismissal, for reporting unlawful or unethical activities within the company. To avoid these claims, you should have clear whistleblower protection policies and procedures in place.

7. Redundancy claims

Redundancy claims (usually unfair dismissal claims) may arise when employees feel they were unfairly selected for redundancy, that there wasn’t a genuine redundancy situation or that the employer failed to follow the correct procedures during the redundancy process. You must adhere to specific legal requirements when making employees redundant, including consulting with affected employees and considering alternative employment options.

8. Constructive dismissal claims

Constructive dismissal claims occur when an employee resigns from their position as a result of conduct by the employer that amounts to a repudiatory breach of contract. Preventing constructive dismissal claims requires maintaining a healthy work environment and addressing employee concerns promptly.

9. Unlawful deductions from wages

Employees may file claims if they believe that their employer has made unlawful deductions from their wages. Employers must ensure that deductions are in compliance with the Employment Contract and relevant employment law and that employees are informed about any deductions.

10. Health and safety claims

Health and safety claims can result from employees experiencing unsafe working conditions or accidents in the workplace. You need to prioritise health and safety measures and provide employees with the necessary training and equipment to minimise the risk of such claims.

What is an Employment Tribunal?

An Employment Tribunal ET) is a legal body in the UK that adjudicates on disputes between employers and employees. These tribunals deal with a wide range of claims, including unfair dismissal, discrimination claims and breaches of employment contracts. The process is designed to provide a fair and impartial hearing for both parties involved.

How do Employment Tribunals work?

Employment Tribunals follow a structured process when dealing with disputes. Employees must (in most cases) complete Early Conciliation through The Advisory, Conciliation, and Arbitration Service (ACAS) before they can issue a claim to the ET (keep reading to find out more about this process). This may lead to a resolution of the dispute without the need to involve the ET and can be less costly and stressful for both parties.

If this does not lead to a resolution, however, ACAS will issue an Early Conciliation certificate and the employee can submit the claim to the ET. That claim will then be sent to the employer (the respondent) who is allowed to respond. The ET then schedules a hearing to consider the evidence and arguments presented by both parties.

You must engage in the process promptly. Failure to respond to a tribunal claim can result in a default judgment against you. Therefore, understanding the process and seeking legal advice when necessary is vital for ensuring your rights and interests are protected.


Employment legal advice


ACAS advice for employers

ACAS is a valuable resource for employers dealing with workplace disputes. ACAS provides guidance on various aspects of employment law and offers a dispute resolution service to help parties resolve disputes before they escalate to a tribunal.

You should consider resolving the dispute via ACAS early on as this will fairly often lead to a resolution of the dispute without involving the ET and be much less costly.

Early conciliation process

Early conciliation is a process provided by ACAS to help parties involved in employment disputes explore resolution options before proceeding to a tribunal. This process involves an ACAS conciliator who acts as a neutral third party, facilitating discussions between the employer and employee. Early conciliation aims to reach an agreement without the need for legal action.

How long does the conciliation process take?

The duration of the conciliation process can vary depending on the complexity of the dispute and the willingness of both parties to engage in discussions. Typically, it can take a few weeks to several months to reach a resolution. The advantage of conciliation is that it often results in a quicker and less costly outcome compared to lengthy tribunal proceedings.

What benefits do Alternative Dispute Resolution systems provide employers?

Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) systems, such as mediation and arbitration, offer several benefits to employers. These methods can be more cost-effective and less time-consuming than going through the formal tribunal process. Additionally, they provide a platform for parties to maintain control over the resolution of their disputes, fostering a collaborative atmosphere.


ADR advice


Conciliation vs. mediation

Conciliation and mediation are two ADR methods that share similarities, but they have distinct differences. In conciliation, the conciliator actively suggests solutions to the dispute, while in mediation, the mediator assists the parties in reaching their own agreement. Both approaches aim to foster open communication and collaboration between the parties to resolve the issue.

The importance of resolving workplace disputes

Resolving workplace disputes is not just about complying with employment law; it's about maintaining a positive work environment and protecting your business from the potential financial and reputational damage that can result from a dispute. By addressing issues promptly, communicating clearly, and considering ADR methods like conciliation and mediation, you can navigate employment disputes more effectively and reduce the associated stress and costs.

Get legal assistance from LawBite

Dealing with employment disputes can be a challenging aspect of running a business. However, by understanding the process, engaging with resources like ACAS and considering ADR methods, you can navigate these challenges more effectively. 

Remember, the key to managing employment disputes is early intervention and open communication. If you prioritise these principles you become positioned to maintain a harmonious work environment and protect your interests in the face of workplace disputes.

To speak to one of our expert employment lawyers about a workplace dispute book a free 15 minute consultation or call us on 020 3808 8314.

We can support you with the full lifecycle of employment disputes, from putting the documentation and procedures in place for managing disputes, to ADR and Employment Tribunal representation.


Additional resources

In closing

Nothing in this article constitutes legal advice on which you should rely. The article is provided for general information purposes only. Professional legal advice should always be sought before taking any action relating to or relying on the content of this article. Our Platform Terms of Use apply to this article.

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