· 3 min read · Features

The year ahead: Make sure you are on top of the legal changes and be prepared for the upturn

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However muted it may be, 2010 is likely to see the return of growth to the UK economy. So how can employers make the most of the upturn when it finally arrives?

Employers everywhere have ‘economic recovery' written on their Christmas wish lists. But if it came tomorrow, how many would be really prepared to make the most of it? There are several areas of employment law where there have been significant recent developments, which could well have an impact on the day-to-day running of a business. Employers need to be on top of these now.

Amendments to the Working Time Regulations are expected to allow employees to reclaim holidays during which they fall ill, and even to carry them over into the next leave year. This right already exists for public-sector staff following recent European Court decisions, such as Stringer vs HMRC. Do your policies on annual leave cover this situation?  In particular, think about restricting discretionary sick pay to statutory sick pay for periods that coincide with pre-booked holidays. Also make sure that any reporting requirements are just as strict for someone who catches a tummy bug in Ibiza as for anyone who falls ill while not on holiday.

Early in the New Year may also be an ideal moment to review working practices. Attracting the best staff isn't all about pay - there may now be an opportunity to introduce new working patterns, flexible hours contracts, new remuneration arrangements and other measures to allow employers to be in the best shape to respond to the upturn, while keeping staff motivated. This could especially be the case if there have been recent restructurings and redundancies. Employers should therefore consider opening consultations with employees and their representatives so that the business is best placed to meet increases in demand.

Employers should also spend some time anticipating likely new legislation, such as the Agency Workers Regulations 2010, and how it will impact on their organisations. These draft Regulations are scheduled to come into force on 1 October 2011, but many companies would greatly benefit if they use next year to prepare and adjust for the new rules. For instance, after 12 weeks in a job agency workers will be entitled to: the same pay and holidays as permanent staff doing the same job; information about vacancies in the hirer to give them the same opportunity as other workers to find permanent employment; equal access to on-site facilities such as childcare and transport services; and improved rights to protect the health and safety of new and expectant mothers (including the right to reasonable time off to attend ante-natal appointments and adjustments to working conditions and working hours). Are you going to be ready to implement these new rights?

Another likely piece of new legislation will be the right to extended paternity leave, enabling mothers of children due on or after 3 April 2011 to transfer up to six months of their maternity leave to the father when they return to work. Are you examining now what kind of impact that might have?   Much like maternity leave this could be particularly disruptive to the operations of a small firm, but larger firms may also be caught off-guard if people they never expected to disappear for prolonged periods.

The more a firm hires, the more often it is exposed to potential slip-ups. When the economic recovery gathers pace there will be new issues out there that the rounded manager will need to know about. These include equal opportunities - rights to religious expression in the workplace, new judicial guidance on defining the meaning of a disabled person and disability discrimination by association. In addition, if the organisation is thinking about extending the kind of flexible working practices it can support, one needs to budget now for investments which will be necessary to achieve this - more investment in IT systems might be one issue.

Employers might also wish to consider how the organisation could be affected by a possible change in Government. The coming weeks will see the political parties outline their post-election intentions for business, companies and employment. As this unfolds, ask yourself - is this something that could seriously affect my organisation and, if so, what should I be doing now?

Unfortunately certain words have become common parlance for HR professionals in 2009 - redundancy, downsizing and reduction being some. Next year could see employers suddenly re-acquainting themselves with hiring, retention and motivation skills, which will put them ahead of the competition. Getting ready for this now will ensure your business will be best placed to attract and retain the best staff, and to make the most of the recovery.

James Wilders is a partner in the employment team at national law firm Dickinson Dees