The Australian Retailers Association has, for the past four and a half years, engaged FCB Group to deliver its Employment Relations advice and support for members. As we step into 2014, a year which promises great challenges and opportunities in the sector, we thought retailers would benefit from an analysis of the types of issues most commonly raised with the ARA’s ER Service, and some more detailed information about how the service operates.

What is the ARA’s ER Service?

The ARA ER Service comprises three key components:

  1. Telephone Advisory Service (TAS)
  2. Employment Relations Management System (ERMS)
  3. HR Consulting support and case management

The TAS provides ARA members with access to specialised telephone advice on all employment relations matters. The ERMS provides members with a cloud based employment lifecycle management system. HR Consulting support and case management can cover any area, including responding to claims (including unfair dismissal, discrimination and underpayments), management of difficult employees and drafting or reviewing of employment conditions.

What are retailers asking about?

The TAS received more than 8,000 calls from retailers during 2013. The ARA has worked hard to ensure retailers are getting the information they need when they need it, through ongoing improvements to the telephone service provided by FCB. One of the most frustrating experiences when you need advice is when you cannot get through to the advisor, leave a message and then have to wait around for a call back, which almost invariably comes when you are on the phone, out of the office or in the middle of something else. The ARA is delighted to report that 98 percent of those more than 8,000 calls to the service in 2013 were answered ‘first time,’ which is at the time the caller made their call into the service.

Of those calls, a significant percentage (more than 21 percent) related to wage rates. With the completion of the transitional provisions of Modern Awards on 1 July 2014, which will result in a simpler and easier to understand manner and apply set of wage rates applying to retail businesses, we expect calls on this topic to reduce slightly.

Another area where a large number of calls were received was in relation to termination of employment (16 percent of calls), which included termination by the employer, resignation and redundancy. The number of calls regarding redundancy was noticeably higher than in 2012, which indicates retailers are facing ongoing pressure to manage their costs given the difficult trading conditions which extended to 2013.

One area we found concerning from the statistics, is that while the TAS dealt with more than 1,200 calls related to the employer terminating the employment of an employee, there were only approximately 500 calls which dealt with performance management or disciplinary issues. The concern here is that retailers are considering terminating employment without first obtaining direction about the process they should be implementing before termination. By obtaining advice early, and engaging case management assistance where appropriate, retailers are able to significantly reduce the risk of unfair dismissal and other claims.

ERMS statistics

More than 3,000 retail businesses have access to the ERMS. ARA members are using the ERMS for a variety of reasons, from an information portal to a comprehensive employment management tool.

During 2013, more than 19,000 individual log-ins to the ERMS were recorded, meaning ARA members accessed the system on more than 19,000 occasions. We expect this number to increase over 2014 as members begin to make use of the Grievance Management component of the system, which has been developed to assist retailers deal with the new workplace bullying complaints process. Under that new process, employees (and others) are able to make complaints to the Fair Work Commission in relation to alleged workplace bullying.

What have retailers sought our assistance with in 2013?

2013 saw an increase in the number of applications made to the Fair Work Commission related to termination of employment, and it is no surprise this increase was also reflected in the number of matters dealt with by ARA Employment Relations. We assisted in more than 40 dismissal related claims against retailers, with all but one of these being resolved prior to the matter being arbitrated. In the remaining matter, ARA Employment Relations successfully defended the client’s decision to terminate the employment of their employee.

Another area where we saw an increase in the number of retailers seeking case management assistance was in relation to allegations of underpayment of wages. With a greater level of awareness of rights among employees, and a greater willingness (which at times can be questionable) on behalf of the regulators to pursue alleged underpayments, such an increase was inevitable. Retailers are engaging ARA Employment Relations to assist with these claims for a variety of reasons, including our expert knowledge of employee entitlements, insufficient time to deal with the matter and frustration experienced in dealing with the Fair Work Ombudsman, which is often involved in these claims.

Looking ahead to 2014

2014 is unlikely to present too many surprises for retailers. Unfair dismissal and adverse action claims will continue to increase. Management of employees will continue to be a significant factor in the success of retailers.

The major significant change, which we have communicated to retailers through 2013, is the commencement of the Fair Work Commission’s bullying jurisdiction. By the end of January 2014 (the first month of the jurisdiction) 44 claims had been received. With a number of applicant representatives encouraging employees to explore their rights in this area, and more than 28,000 hits on the Fair Work Commission’s bullying webpage, we can expect this number to grow significantly over the course of the year.
If you would like any further information on the issues discussed in this article, contact ARA employment relations experts on 1300 368 041 or email employment.relations@retail.org.au



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