Biggest HR problem in Australia

Each week in this column, I discuss the various challenges facing Australia’s hard-working employers. These are the people who keep the economy going, employ trainees and apprentices, provide opportunity and dignity to millions and fund the superannuation accounts that will pay for the retirement of countless Australians.

There are many challenges faced by these employers, and we’ve discussed many of them in recent months: the complexity of Australia’s employments laws, inflexible Modern Awards and the  ease with which employees can lodge spurious claims to name just a few. But the biggest HR problem facing employers is not the law, or the ineffectiveness of the misleadingly-named Fair Work Commission, or even employees themselves…it’s unscrupulous lawyers.

We have, rather sadly, become one of those places where no-win, no-fee lawyers now relentlessly spruik their wares on daytime television and where any form of disciplinary action taken by an employer – no matter how carefully-invoked or even justified in the circumstances – is often met with a letter from a law firm threatening litigation on behalf of their client. Simple requests are now labelled ‘bullying’. Employees reminded of their obligations claim they are being ‘intimidated’. And legitimate action taken by managers to bring an end to unacceptable behaviour is cited as a cause of ‘psychological injury’ that invariably results in the lodgement of a claim for workers’ compensation.

The cause of this decay in our workplaces is quite simple in my view – it’s our increasing reliance on courts and lawyers to sort out all of our problems. Gone are the days when a simple misunderstanding was resolved at an informal meeting in the lunchroom via an exchange of sincere apologies. Why resolve a problem when a law firm down the street promises buckets of cash to ‘compensate’ for the ‘suffering’, ‘stress’ and ‘psychological injury’ that was caused by the misunderstanding. Surely, they argue, it makes much more sense to ‘defend your rights’ than to simply sit down and sort it out over a cup of tea.

Let me be clear: there are some great lawyers and law firms out there fighting the good fight for hard-done-by employees and employers. It’s just a shame our employment laws make it so easy for others to pile claim upon claim upon claim in an effort to force the employer’s hand and achieve a ‘settlement’ for their client. It’s even more disappointing that the Fair Work Commission itself appears to condone this approach via the conciliation process that places no restrictions on lawyers taking part and speaking on their client’s behalf. Surely we can do better than this?

Published: 24 January 2013

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