Preview: Charity Law Conference - 'Unscrupulous' staff exploit the sector's goodwill, warns expert

Mathew Little

A minority of charity workers exploit the goodwill of charities by bringing bogus discrimination claims, delegates at the Annual Charity Law Conference will hear next Monday.

William Garnett, head of employment law at Bates, Wells & Braithwaite, which is staging the event with the Directory of Social Change at the RSA, London, will argue that one reason for the high number of employment tribunal cases involving charities is that they are being taken advantage of by unscrupulous employees.

"When a charity raises a genuine issue concerning the competency of one of its employees, all too often it gets turned into a bogus counterclaim of discrimination," Garnett will say.

"But most charities really do pay more than lip service to equal opportunities - most bend over backwards to meet employee requests and provide constructive support."

According to government figures, staff in the voluntary sector account for 2 per cent of the UK workforce but are responsible for 6 per cent of employment tribunal cases. A study carried out by the University of Liverpool in 2003 suggested that one in four charities had faced a tribunal hearing in the previous year.

Garnett will claim that the sector's poor record in this area can be explained partly by the fact that it takes more risks than the private sector, such as employing people with disabilities, but that it also allows itself to be exploited by cynical staff members.

"We have almost reached the point at which anybody who leaves a job thinks they are entitled to compensation," he told Third Sector, media partner for the conference. "Charities are vulnerable to this."

Garnett estimates that about 30 per cent of charity employment tribunal cases involve people making claims "as part of a negotiating strategy".

"We almost have a culture in the sector where people think they should be paid off," he added.

But Lord Phillips, the founder of Bates, Wells & Braithwaite, will claim that the reason there are so many employment law cases in the sector is the passion of staff members for the cause.

"Things not going as the employee has expected can make for a potentially volatile relationship," he will say.

HR specialist John Burnell of human resources firm Personnel Solutions said unscrupulous employees were just one factor in such cases. "It is an element you'd be foolish to ignore," he said. "But it is only a small element."

He said problems were also caused by managers not wanting to address personnel issues at an early stage and "Lady Bountiful types who say 'it's our organisation and we will do as we wish', without realising their responsibilities as employers".

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