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How would you deal with an employment dispute?

Earlier this month, a bitter dispute between the Construction Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) and development and funds management company Grocon came to an end when the former was ordered to pay just over $3.5 million to the industry giant.

This payout was confirmed in an official statement on CFMEU’s website, which read: “The settlement of $3.55 million will be paid to Grocon’s lawyers to cover legal costs and it is expressly without any admission of liability. Not one cent will go to Grocon”.

According to the Fair Work Commission, the health and safety disagreement that started it all took place in 2012 when the union demanded that its stewards be appointed on the Myers Emporium site. Grocon disagreed with the suggestion and, in protest, CFMEU disrupted work.

This case highlights an important aspect: in the course of running a business you may encounter employment disputes. It is not necessary that all disagreements will be between employer and employee, sometimes issues arise amongst staff as well.

If the unthinkable does happen, you will need advice from experts who understand this area of law and have extensive experience.

Seeking legal counsel early on can help you stay on the right track and perhaps even prevent the dispute from getting long-winded.

Here are some tips to help you in case of a dispute:

1. Is there an enterprise agreement?

An enterprise or a national employment standards agreement usually includes guidelines pertaining to dispute resolution.

In the absence of such a contract, the Fair Work Commission suggests using the modern award, which usually includes a dispute resolution procedure, as required by the Fair Work Act 2009.

However, in the event that even a modern award does not exist, the steps outlined in the employment contract and company policy should be followed.

2. Have you thought about developing a disputes resolutions procedure?

Even if you believe a dispute is unlikely to affect your workplace, it is best to draft a plan for times when an unfortunate event does take place.

Seeking the services of a legal team that are well versed in this area of employment law will help you develop a plan that is simple and complies with the law. In fact, the Fair Work Commission recommends a dispute resolution process should be, first and foremost, easy to follow.

The authority also suggests the process should be in stages, as this would increase the likelihood of the disagreement getting settled at the workplace.

3. What to do if a matter reaches the Fair Work Commission?

Both parties should work on process, should the matter reach the Fair Work Commission.

If earlier attempts of settlement fail and an issue escalates to the authority, it is best to let the commission exercise its discretion and power to decide how the dispute should be resolved.

4. What outcomes should you hope for? 

The Fair Work Commission suggests ideal dispute outcomes have the following characteristics:

  • The issues are resolved in a short time, thanks to being followed up on a regular basis.
  • All parties are consulted and due consideration is giving to each account of the dispute.
  • Privacy and confidentiality are upheld, leaving other employees to get on with their work as per normal.
  • The procedure should be explicit to the involved parties from start to finish.
  • The organisation should continue with a business-as-usual approach, therefore not letting the matter affect operations.

With the exception of extraordinary circumstances, the Fair Work Act does not allow an employee to discontinue while the matter is being resolved.

It is best to take precautionary measures before an issue arises, so make sure you do thorough research to create a sound settlement procedure.