Disputes at work: Think hard before a trip to the tribunal

Seeking redress at the employment tribunal can take a lot of time and energy, and could damage your future career

When charity employees feel they have been mistreated by their employer, one option is to seek redress at the employment tribunal, where the claims can include unfair or constructive dismissal, discrimination and breach of contract.

But Emma Burrows, an employment lawyer with Trowers and Hamlins solicitors, advises people not to take this course without very careful thought. "It will cost an enormous amount of time and energy," she says. "Nobody should get involved in litigation unless they really, really want to."

She warns that the case will take three months, or even longer, depending on the complexity of the case and the availability of tribunal time. She has taken cases that have lasted three or four years, she says, and it can be difficult for a claimant to find another job before the case is concluded.

"There's an awful amount to do in bringing the claim," she says. "You don't just send some allegations off into the ether -you've got to compile evidence to back it all up." The government has also recently introduced fees for using the tribunal, which can be as high as a total of £1,200.

Burrows also warns of the emotional commitment involved in a tribunal: exchanges of documents, such as emails between colleagues concerning your behaviour, can bring unwelcome revelations.

"By the time you get to tribunal, the relationship has broken down completely, so you will see things you don't want to see," she says. "You've sued them, and that's a very aggressive act, so people tell the truth - it's a very painful process."

Employees also need to consider how a tribunal case is likely to affect their future career, says Burrows: "If you're still employed by someone and you sue them, the reality is you're going to have to find yourself a new job, because if you stay people are going to be very wary of you in the future.

"If you're looking for new jobs, how much word gets around depends on the type of charity. For example, if you're operating in the children's sector, where charities know each other, you have to be realistic - the details of the claim might get out.

"But if, for example, you work in an area where the charities are quite discreet or you do something that's generic, such as IT, then I don't think it gets around that much."

Burrows says she's seen a dramatic fall in the number of claims in the tribunal since fees were introduced - 80 per cent fewer in some types of case. "I don't think the large claims have dropped that much, so the type of litigation we're seeing is more complicated and takes longer," she says. "If it's a small thing, people are less willing to put their money on the line."

Burrows thinks the fees definitely mean people are being denied access to justice. Another HR specialist comments: "The landscape of risk has changed out of all proportion. The recent changes have been a charter for ruthless employers."

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