Avoiding needless litigation in Europe

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Litigation is the nightmare of many HR professionals, especially those managing staff across Europe. Now managers can follow an on-line training programme to help them deal with any gaps in their expertise.

Being taken to court is both costly and time-consuming

Every employer knows that being taken to court is a costly and time-consuming process, but the risks of court action are particularly high in some European countries and foreign companies are even more vulnerable than local employers.

The European litigation league

A typical large company in Belgium can expect to defend 28 court cases brought by present or former employees every year, but a similar firm in Sweden faces an average of only one case every ten years.

According to the Federation of European Employers' (FedEE) litigation league table, Belgium ranks with Poland and the Netherlands as one of the three litigation capitals of Europe, whilst employers in Sweden and Finland rarely need to enter a courtroom.

So what makes employees so keen to go to law in some countries and not in others? In Scandinavia, despite the mass of employment legislation, there are many ways for employees to resolve disputes without the need for court action.

In Belgium, however, although it is relatively easy for employers to dismiss staff, there is no formal system for dispute resolution outside the courts.

In the Netherlands, litigation figures tend to be inflated by the need for permission from a court or the regional employment authorities before an employee may be dismissed.

In the Slovak Republic, the volume of cases is affected by the sheer amount of time taken to get through the courts - an average of 22 months. And if formal conciliation processes do not work they will only serve to delay litigation - a particular problem in Poland, Spain and Italy.

UK employers often complain that they face an excess of tribunal applications, but the number is modest by European standards and only one in every four applications leads to a tribunal hearing. Since October 2004, the number of UK applications has even fallen as statutory dispute resolution procedures take effect.

If people knew more about legal compliance  the number of cases would drop significantly and FedEE's aim is to educate HR professionals in how to avoid needless litigation.

For instance, explains Chater, a lot of people assume that EU Directives have harmonised country laws so that they are virtually all the same. This notion can lead them to introduce common HR policies across countries that have very different workplace rules.

"Moreover, Chater adds, "Many US and Anglo-Saxon HR professionals don't understand the importance or standing of sectoral collective labour agreements in a number of continental countries. This can lead them to ignore legally enforceable agreements - especially in France where they are very strictly applied and Italy where they apply even up to senior management levels."

Gaining the knowledge

To help its members to avoid making such common mistakes, two years ago FedEE successfully introduced a comprehensive employment law programme offering 24/7 access to the expertise of top legal practitioners in different European countries.

Now, FedEE has developed an on-line certification (http://www.fedee.com/enterlaw.shtml) to give HR professionals a standard by which they can measure their knowledge of international employment laws. This currently covers eleven different legal jurisdictions, but is planned to expand to include all EU countries by 2006. The assessment may be taken without additional charge by legal and HR professionals in FedEE's member firms and the resulting certificate is available in five different EU languages.

With the new certification scheme, managers and HR professionals will be able to assess the knowledge of their staff and deal with any gaps in their expertise.

 On-line training is offered in the form of audio-visual 'Flash' web casts covering 21 different countries plus the EU legal framework itself, and these may be viewed individually or projected through a digital projector for group presentations. On-line assessment is on a country-by-country basis and certificates are available as soon as a pass level has been achieved. The programme is constantly expanding and each presentation is updated every year.

FedEE certificates in employment law have been designed so that they may be printed for display purposes, attached electronically to a CV, or incorporated into the new EU 'Europass' .

July 2005

Source: Robin Chater is the Secretary-General of FedEE. He can be contacted at robin.chater@fedee.com or by telephone at: +44 (0)207 520 9264

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