Small businesses often do their best to ignore the whole subject – until the threat of litigation rears its head. Applications to employment tribunals in the UK increased threefold between 1998 and 2001, before falling back slightly last year.
The extent to which employers struggle with their legal obligations has prompted a rapidly growing market in paid-for HR information products, helplines and outsourcing services that attempt to commoditise employment law in formats that do away with the need for lawyers.
Rather more comprehensive is the guidance offered by outsourcing companies such as Peninsula, which aims to remove the need for an in-house personnel and health and safety function. It now has 13,000 clients and takes 6,000 advice calls a week to a 24-hour helpline. Its staff are not lawyers but former HR managers acting as consultants, who visit a client, install employment contracts and procedures, advise on how the law affects them and alert them to new regulations as they come into force.
A newer, more technologically minded offering is Liquid HR, set up by law firm Human and Legal Resources as a vehicle for small firms. This aims to allow small businesses to run their own do-it-yourself HR function.
It comprises a database of personnel details such as employee benefits, salaries, holidays and sickness records, allowing employees to keep their own records (different levels of security guard against cheating), while ensuring compliance with the assorted data protection codes. There is also a company policies and procedures intranet, so employees can look up details about, for instance, maternity policy and discipline. The system provides model contracts and policies and also offers a 24-hour advice helpline. The cost is £10 per employee a month (a 12-month minimum contract), with a one-off charge of £95 for a starter pack.