News in focus: Why do so many workers take charities to tribunal?

Charity staff take a disproportionate number of cases to employment tribunals. John Plummer asks why the sector is so susceptible to litigation from its employees, and how the situation can be improved

People who work for charities may be a kind and caring lot, but it seems their goodwill doesn't extend to their managers.

According to government figures, voluntary sector staff account for 2 per cent of the national workforce but are responsible for 6 per cent of employment tribunal cases. A Liverpool University survey in 2003 revealed that 25 per cent of charities had been called to a tribunal in the past year.

The statistics raise difficult questions about how charities treat their staff: do they exploit their passion for the cause or simply fail to take employee relations seriously?

Doug Nicholls, general secretary of the Community and Youth Workers' Union, is convinced it's the latter. Nicholls has represented hundreds of voluntary sector staff over the past 30 years and has yet to lose a case.

"I would put every case down to ignorance," he says. "Employers can be malicious, but the main cause is ignorance of employment legislation."

Nicholls acknowledges that charities lack money to invest in human resources, but he claims they also lack the will. He cites lack of union recognition and recognised pay scales and a failure to embrace government/employer relations initiatives such as Partnership at Work as "bad systematic mistakes" that scar employee relations. "There is a reluctance to wake up to the problem," he adds.

Voluntary sector employment tribunals cost the Government £13m to administer each year. That does not include payouts, which the Government sometimes meets indirectly through core funding.

Ministers appear to have done the maths: workforce development is one of five national hubs of expertise the Government wants to see created under the Changeup programme. "Employers should have improved access to support and advice on HR issues," states the Changeup document.

Nicholls warns that charities can no longer take the situation lightly.

"There is a sense in government that good money will be thrown after bad unless the capacity of the voluntary sector is improved and the sector becomes more willing to tackle the problem," he says.

A report on human resources provision in the voluntary sector called A stitch in time, which was published this month, reveals the depth of the problem. "Voluntary organisations are approaching infrastructure organisations for help with human resources issues too late, often when a situation has reached crisis point already," states the report, which was produced by five voluntary sector representative bodies, including the NACVS and the NCVO, with Home Office funding.

It says: "We need to be thinking about how to promote a 'stitch in time' culture where organisations recognise that a little investment now can help save a lot of time and expense later."

The report reveals that the most common human resources issues infrastructure organisations are consulted on are volunteer management (74 per cent), equal opportunities (74 per cent) and training, development and appraisal (71 per cent). Workforce planning scored only 34 per cent.

The report's authors are consulting on the findings, which will support a bid to run a workforce development hub.

As the big charities get bigger, some are grasping the nettle. Barnardo's, for example, agreed to recognise Unison this year. But for organisations without hundreds of staff, the situation is chronic.

"Smaller charities are suffering serious problems," says Ian Cunningham, a lecturer specialising in voluntary sector employee relations at Strathclyde University. "Trade union officials talk about the amateurishness even of medium-sized charities," he says. "Sometimes it's down to them adopting well meaning procedures that tie their hands."

Mike Emmott, an adviser on employee relations at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says there are some "desperately bad management practices in the senior levels of the voluntary sector". He fears the sheer number of small charities will hamper attempts to reduce the disproportionately high volume of tribunals.

He also fears the sector is a victim of its own qualities. "It is underpinned by a belief in the importance of independent action and a wish to make the world a better place," he says. "A lot of staff won't hesitate to take action if they feel their employer has misbehaved."

Professor Ian Bruce, director of the Centre for Charity Effectiveness at Cass Business School, agrees that the sector's unique qualities cause tension. "Staff that work for charities are passionate about their work and that can produce more confrontation," he says.

Human resources bosses take greater risks in recruitment, he adds, disproportionately complying with equality legislation and their own sense of fairness.

This fairness can antagonise disputes when they first arise. "Many managers want to think things can be resolved informally and when they aren't they haven't got the necessary evidence of proper procedures," says Bruce.

Charity structure is another handicap: having both paid professionals and non-paid trustees can reduce the effectiveness of the decision-making process compared to private companies.

"The voluntary sector has public sector governance and accountability, with a private sector ethos," says Jean Cooper, co-ordinator of Partnership at Work, which helps voluntary youth, community and play organisations foster better workforce relations. "Having a board of trustees resolve disputes makes things even more complex, because it's not just managers that need to know about the law."

Charities' ability to deliver public services is threatened by their failure to comply with employment legislation. To compound the problem, Partnership at Work will close in December unless it finds fresh funding.

"A lot of small voluntary organisations don't have access to an accountant or a solicitor," says Cooper. "They are totally dependent on infrastructure organisations like us to give them support."

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