From the introduction of the minimum wage to this year's changes to maternity and holiday pay, retailers have had to cope with a relentless wave of employment legislation over the past decade.
And with the everyday tasks of running a c-store often taking priority, it can be easy to place the paperwork-side of managing a workforce to the bottom of the pile. But ignore employment law and it's likely to come back to haunt you.
Keeping any new changes to set times of the year, April and October, has made it easier for businesses to keep track of changes, but what seems like a neverending stream of new legislation can still be tough to manage.
Sarah King, partner at employment law specialists PJH Law, explains: "Smaller businesses understandably struggle to keep up to date with changes more than larger businesses, which can afford to have their own HR departments. Owners and managers can often feel overwhelmed as they've also got to run their day-to-day businesses.
"The government has tried to make it easier with just two main implementation dates in April and October, but the problem for many businesses is that there's been more legislation to keep on top of - especially with an increase in the number of laws coming from Europe."
Head of employment at Browne Jacobson LLP, Ray Silverstein, agrees. "It's become more difficult for employers to keep up to date and avoid the pitfalls of employment law. At the
same time, it's increasingly easy for employees to make claims as there's no real cost penalty if they lose. It's extremely important retailers keep on top of any changes."
a bumpy ride
Maternity leave has always been a difficult matter for small businesses to handle and additional maternity leave, of up to a year, is to be granted to all working mothers. In addition to increases in not just maternity but paternity leave, employees with caring responsibilities have had the right to request flexible working hours from April 6 this year.
"The employee has to make the request for flexible working in writing, and if the employer doesn't agree they have to send written notification of a meeting, which must take place within 28 days," explains PJH's King. "Employers can object only on certain grounds and there's an appeals procedure. The spine of the new legislation is not that bad, but it can often lead to other discrimination claims from employees if it's rejected."
King believes that the right to request flexible working hours could eventually be extended to all employees. She says: "My view is that eventually all employees will be given the right to request flexible working. Retailers can help themselves and avoid problems by being willing, where possible, to be flexible."
Another issue which hasn't been totally straightforward for employers since being introduced in October 2006 is age discrimination law. From retirement dates through to job adverts, the new laws could trip you up if you're not careful, as King explains: "Basically, in terms of procedure, the age discrimination laws mirror sex and race laws. When I look through job adverts in newspapers, I'm still surprised by the number of employers who continue to use words which could be considered discriminatory, such as 'school-leaver' or 'mature'.
"Another issue facing employers is the retirement procedure. Retailers need to be aware that they must write to their employees at least six months in advance of the intended retirement date."
King also stresses the importance of documenting important staffing issues in writing and adds: "If retailers always document everything, it can only help as evidence if they need it at a later date. It's also important that contracts are set up and updated correctly. We have a draft contract available for businesses to download free from our website (www.pjhlaw.co.uk)."
Despite all the new forms of discrimination law that have come in over the years, the most popular claim is still unfair dismissal, according to Browne Jacobson's Silverstein.
"The biggest problem has been the need to carry out compulsory procedures for dismissal and grievance," he says. "If this is not done then it will automatically be ruled as unfair dismissal. A lot of employers have been caught out."
The three-point compulsory procedure must involve writing to the employee concerned to invite them to a meeting, the meeting itself, and the right to an appeal, during which the first two steps should be repeated.
play it safe
Silverstein is confident the rules will have to be rewritten in time, but urges retailers to stick to the procedure or risk the case being ruled automatically as unfair dismissal.
He explains: "The government understands these rules have been a nightmare and they're likely to be torn up. No one knows exactly what's happening yet so in the meantime it's vital retailers carry out the correct three-point procedure."
Changes to holiday entitlement are also due to come into force in October. This is another big issue for employers, says Silverstein. "In an ideal world more holiday is great, but it's going to be another pressure that smaller businesses are going to have to contend with," he says. "It will be a bit of a headache, but at least the changes are coming in two chunks over a year."
While employment law changes can cause considerable stress for small businesses, companies are not about to stop employing staff. Silverstein has, however, noticed an increase in staff turnover and believes the new laws should take some of the blame.
"The churn rate at some companies is enormous," he says. "This can have a knock-on effect because if employers don't expect employees to stay for long then they won't be as keen to properly train staff."
Silverstein also says that employees can be pretty savvy and warns retailers: "A lot more people are seeing a tribunal claim as an easy way to make a bit of money. Writing things down is the safest way to ensure that you don't get caught out at a later date. Retailers should send notes of meetings which have taken place. It's important to be open and transparent and to treat people fairly."
Looking to the future, he adds: "I can't see many new forms of discrimination law coming into force, but there are likely to be further changes to family rights. Things like the compulsory procedure for dismissals will continue to be an issue and, unfortunately, employers have got their work cut out."
PJH's King adds: "It's better for retailers to spend time and effort at the initial stage of a complaint rather than a lot more later down the line. If they end up losing a big case it will really hit their bottom line."
Dates for your diary
October 1 2007
Statutory holiday entitlement increases from 20 to 24 days for someone working a five-day week
Minimum wage rate for adults increases to £5.52 per hour
The Commission for Racial Equality, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Disability Rights Commission will merge into a single body - The Commission for Equality and Human Rights
October 1 2008
Statutory holiday entitlement increases to 28 days for someone working a five-day week
Maternity and adoption leave and pay extended to a year.