Edith Cowan University’s decision to require 102 year old Professor David Goodall to suddenly work from home attracted negative media attention and community opinion. The University no doubt took the decision in consideration of the very aged employee’s risk of injury when attending work. However, the decision caused Professor Goodall’s daughter to comment to the media that her father’s health and safety was much more likely to be endangered by isolating him from his colleagues and taking away his sense of purpose than any physical risk attending the campus may pose. It seems that despite discussions the University held with Professor Goodall and his family there was no agreement reached about the need for the change, and as a result the story reached the media. It is not clear whether a different consultation process could have avoided this outcome, but the story has put the spotlight on employers of all kinds ensuring proper consultation procedures are followed.
Consultation – Not Just a Formality
The costs of not carefully meeting consultation requirements and carefully managing major changes in your workplace are not only potential law suits from disgruntled employees but also potential damage to the reputation of your business that could take years to remedy.
Any time an employer disciplines or makes a major change to an employee’s working conditions there is a risk of resentment and even injury. Sudden changes – up to and including dismissal – can be very traumatic for employees. If an employee suffers a psychiatric injury the employer could be liable for that injury and a workers’ compensation claim could result. Careful and genuine consultation could absolve the employer of any such liability, but also – and perhaps more importantly – if done effectively could avoid resentment and the effect that a disgruntled employee can have on an employer’s reputation.
Under Australia’s modern award system making major changes to an employee’s conditions of employment legally requires consultation with the employee about those changes. The need to consult employees about making a major change can seem futile and disingenuous to employers when they know there is nothing that could be said during any such discussion that could avoid the need for the change. Employers are often also annoyed about the requirement to offer an employee a support person.
Consultation provides an opportunity for the employer and employee to discuss the changes the employer feels it must make and the reasons why. An employee may seek to negotiate alternatives to the change and even if none are practicable, allowing the employee to discuss the alternatives can minimise disempowerment and avoid disgruntled statements to other employees, clients and the wider community.
Consultation Best Practice
- The consultation process should be at the forefront of any plan for change to working conditions from the outset – never an afterthought.
- A well written letter to the affected employee/s can formally notify the proposed change and set out the timing of further discussions.
- Discussions should be professional and formal, focus on the facts and exclude emotion to the greatest extent possible.
- Allowing an employee to bring a friend, relative or other support person ensures the employee doesn’t feel outnumbered and has someone they trust to comfort them in the event they become distressed.
HHG Legal Group regularly assists small, medium sized and large private and government organisations to plan and manage major changes to their employees’ contracts, from single employees (like the aged Professor Goodall) to organisation-wide restructuring and redundancies. Good planning and management, together with sound legal advice, protects both employers and employees.
This is general information only, and does not constitute specific legal advice. If you would like further information in relation to this matter or other legal matters please contact our office on Freecall 1800 609 945 or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.