THERE was nothing out of the ordinary about Graham’s job – certainly not until the day that he didn’t have it any more.
For some months he had been employed by an organisation providing dental services to an NHS primary care trust, but then without warning he was sacked. The explanation given was an unfounded claim that Graham had “fiddled” his time sheet. Yet his employers were unable to show the evidence for this and they refused him any opportunity to challenge the allegation.
Having been an employee for less than a year, he had no legal basis for an unfair dismissal claim but he was keen to chase his former bosses for payment of the final two month’s salary which, for no justifiable reason, they had decided to withhold.
So Graham sought the advice of his professional association which looked at his contract of employment and found that his bosses had been operating illegally both in their dealings with the erstwhile employee and with their PCT client.
The British Dental Association provides a mediation service to resolve employment issues without the need for a costly and time-consuming employment tribunal. In this case, the BDA advised his former employer to cough up the unpaid salary and to find themselves a good lawyer who knew how to draw up a proper contract.
Checking through the letters’ pages of the veterinary press over the past few months, it is clear that poor management also causes serious stress for employees in the dentists’ sister profession. But equally, there are occasions when both vets and dentists running their own practices are driven to distraction by disruptive or underperforming staff, often those with a shrewd understanding of their rights under current employment legislation.
So there will be benefit for both sides now that the BDA mediation service is available to British Veterinary Association members, through an agreement between the two organisations. Responding to the campaign to set up a union to represent employees, BVA officers have recognised the need to provide better support and advice on dealing with workplace issues.
Like all professional associations, the BDA has always offered written and telephone advice to its members on an ad hoc basis, but 13 years ago it was decided to create a separate department for this role. This now employs 10 staff, all with expertise and training either in law or in human resources. Feedback from the membership suggests that the mediation function is the best appreciated of all the association’s services.
The new service is free to any BVA member or associate member and can be accessed through the association’s legal helpline, whose staff will assess the problem and refer on cases which may be satisfactorily resolved through mediation.
Judging from their experience in dealing with employment problems in dental practices, it is likely that most cases result from poor communications between the two sides.
“A dentist may be brilliant at fixing teeth but that doesn’t always equip them with the skills to manage, and the most important one of those is to be able to explain clearly what they want their staff to do. I suspect we will find that vets are exactly the same,” says James Goldman, head of the legal advisory team at the BDA’s Wimpole Street headquarters.
The great virtue of the mediation service is that it offers an expert, confidential and impartial analysis of the issues underlying an employment dispute. Usually this will highlight a solution acceptable to both sides, often involving a certain amount of compromise for both parties. It is certainly preferable to the alternative of a formal tribunal.
Representing either side
“It is in the interests of both sides to avoid having to do that – going to court is a mug’s game,” notes James, perhaps surprisingly for a member of the legal profession.
However, if the problem is intractable, the service will also provide representation in cases that do go before an employment tribunal. In cases involving dentists, the BDA staff can represent either side in the dispute.
For the new service for veterinary surgeons, James and his colleagues can only appear on behalf of the employee. The BVA expects the employer’s practice insurance policy to cover the costs of obtaining legal representation for those rare occasions when it may be necessary.
When considering which cases they will take on, the team will often find themselves providing advice that is not entirely welcome. “There have been many occasions when we have had to say ‘Yes, we agree that the situation is unfair but you don’t have a case – so just live with it’,” he says.
There are also cases that fall outside the team’s remit. “One thing we always say to our dentist members is, ‘We don’t do teeth’. If it is a matter of a complaint about professional competence, then that is something for their professional indemnity insurers. It will be exactly the same for the vets, those issues will normally be passed on to the Veterinary Defence Society.”
But when the team does agree to take on a case that goes before an employment tribunal, their client is in good hands. In his seven years with the BDA, James can only remember one case that they have lost when acting on behalf of either the employer or employee.
“That is because we do know which fights to pick and we prepare our cases very carefully. We also make sure that the right person in the team is assigned to each particular case. There are occasions when our client is best represented by someone with the touch-feely skills of someone with a background in human resources. In other situations they may need a human pitbull with a legal training – we have one of those, too.”
BVA president Professor Bill Reilly welcomes the launch of the new service, believing that it will successfully address an important issue facing the veterinary profession.
“At veterinary school we are trained to become skilled and knowledgeable veterinary scientists and surgeons, not employers or team leaders. The veterinary practice is a highly stressful environment and conflicts can arise between members of the team, particularly between employers and employees. It benefits the whole team if issues can be resolved amicably.”
He explained that the idea for mediation and representation services came from the BVA Members’ Services Group, which has been developing the idea for some time.
“We are confident that the legal and human resources expertise of the new team will successfully fill that gap in the BVA membership package. Media reports of the calls for a veterinary union indicated that some veterinary surgeons were concerned about their own personal circumstances.
“I sincerely hope that anyone with concerns relating to the workplace will now take a look at our new services and get in touch to see how the BVA can help them find the right solution.
“The key to a successful veterinary practice is a happy and fulfilled veterinary team, with strong relationships and individuals feeling secure and satisfied in their roles. I hope the BVA’s mediation and representation services will go some way to fulfilling these aspirations.”