Unless issues are addressed, all the best procedures in the world will still be ineffective

Having practised employment law for over 20 years now, Maree Skinner tells us in this exclusive how the scope of what employment lawyers do has changed. She highlights that HR teams are experiencing an increase in claims and difficulties with poor behaviour from employees.

ELM: The topic of employment law can be quite broad though, from clients you’ve dealt with and the challenges they’ve faced, what five main areas are you being approached about to help them in?

  1. Difficult behaviour – Many clients are experiencing an increase in claims and difficulties with poor behaviour from employees, in particular bullying and harassment and social media breaches. We are regularly assisting clients to deal with these issues and diagnose what broader issues may be at play in the organisation.
  2. Worker welfare – Problems in the workplace that involve some form of mental health issues have definitely been on the rise.  Apart from advising on the particular issue in a given case, we have been assisting clients to consider broader organisational issues and to train their managers so that they better understand mental health issues, as well as how organisational factors, such as employees being required to respond to emails at all times of the day and night, can contribute to those issues.
  3. Change management – Assisting with major changes and restructures as a result of technology, outsourcing, acquisition or new management.
  4. Business protection – Assisting clients to protect their business though the implementation and enforcement of retention arrangements, confidentiality obligations and post-termination restraints.
  5. Industrial Relations strategy – Assessing how the organisation can best organise its collective arrangements in line with its culture to achieve business goals.

ELM: From internal research, it seems that all industries and workplaces are being confronted with situations of difficult or challenging employee behaviours. What are you seeing as the top three contributing factors behind this, and why?

Maree: The three top contributing factors would be:

  1. Rapid developments in technology and the shift to a 24/7 business environment has created a situation where employees are working at all hours of the day and nightand the line between work and home has been blurred, creating stress and pressures on employees that are not being actively managed.
  2. Businesses underestimating how much investment (time and money) they need to put into training, developing and engaging staff and the importance of getting the culture of the organisation right.
  3. Social media has blurred the lines between work and personal, and changed what many employees consider appropriate conduct.

ELM: What is the main piece of advice you give clients when they’re reviewing their internal processes and procedures for managing difficult employee behaviours?

Maree: Before you look at your processes and procedures, have you considered whether there are broader issues which may be at play in your organisation that are contributing to the problem, such as leadership or cultural issues? Unless these issues are addressed, all the best processes and procedures in the world will still be ineffective at curbing the problems.

In dealing with the individual issues it is of course always important to take a holistic approach and consider all of the factors that may be contributing to the employee’s behaviour, including personal issues. Assisting the employee to address these issues, perhaps using the organisation’s employee assistance program, can often result in both a resolution of the bad behaviour and a more loyal employee. It’s tough to do this at times in the face of what appears on the surface as pure bad behaviour, but turning around the situation can often benefit both parties.

ELM: Employment Law Matters is delighted to be interviewing you as its newest addition to the Managing Difficult Behaviour Masterclass in May. I understand you’ve been specialising in employment law for the past 20 years. Tell us briefly about your career – any notable experiences you can share?

Maree: I have been fortunate to have a career that has involved working both here and in London with some fabulous clients and on some great matters. Particular highlights have been those matters which have led to real change either within the client’s organisation or, in the case of those matters which have led to legislative or common law change, more broadly for all employers.

I worked on a number of large and complex matters including advising a global telecommunications company on its IR strategy in connection with the acquisition and merger within its business of its distribution network, and advising one of Australia’s largest fast food companies on underpayment issues and assisting it to enter one of the first pro-active compliance deeds with the Fair Work Ombudsman.

The scope of what employment lawyers do has really changed over the course of my career. While we have always sought to assist clients to pro-actively manage compliance with workplace laws, our advice has become much broader and really shifted into helping clients understand that being on the front foot of engaging, motivating and retaining employees will go a long way towards addressing their compliance risk.

We like to call it “People Magnetism”. When you see organisations get the people engagement piece right, everything else comes together.


About Maree Skinner:

Maree is a partner in DibbsBarker’s People & Workplace services group, and a member of our Energy & Infrastructure, Life Sciences & Healthcare, and Property industry groups.

Maree has been acknowledged by Chambers & Partners as a leader in Employment (2015) and has practiced in this area for over twenty years. She supports her clients in the management of their employee and industrial relations by providing everything from advice on day to day employment issues through to high level strategic advice on major projects.

Maree is particularly well-known for her expertise in the employment aspects of commercial transactions, restructures, downsizings, administrations and receiverships, as well as executive remuneration and disclosure issues.

Maree also has extensive experience advising clients on industrial relations issues, including the bargaining of enterprise agreements and industrial disputes.

Maree has handled many large FWO audits, investigations and prosecutions for clients and regularly conducts employee bullying, harassment and misconduct investigations.

Maree is the newest workshop facilitator for the Brisbane edition of the upcoming masterclass on Managing Difficult Employee Behaviours.