Acas: Delivering a real return on investment

“Fairness and reasonableness are constants, but the mechanisms for resolving workplace disputes are constantly changing”

Terry Duffy, a Senior Adviser for Acas (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service), gave an insight into the role of the organisation in an entertaining and interesting talk at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Business School on Thursday, November 12. As a publicly funded organization Acas has to continually justify its existence in the modern world. Terry made a strong case for the organisation in his engaging overview of what Acas does, and does not, do.

“We trade on our impartiality, we don’t take sides.”

To quote the service’s website: “Acas provides free and impartial information and advice to employers and employees on all aspects of workplace relations and employment law.”

Terry outlined the difference between conciliation and mediation. In the former case, the defence of a statutory right is at stake; applicants have the chance to take their claim to court to seek a legal remedy. Collective conciliation involves facilitating in a trade dispute between an employer and a group of workers (usually) represented by a trade union. “Mediation is not about right and wrong.. It is about trying to facilitate between two parties… A clash of personalities is not an employment right.”  

In other words, conciliation is concerned with legal rights. Mediation deals with a wider range of problems at work including personal relationships.

“A conciliator or a mediator does not advocate or judge.”

As Terry made clear sometimes workplace victories can be hollow. “Winning where other people feel they’re losing is a bad outcome”.

Terry talked about the organisation’s structure; there is an twelve strong Acas Council drawn from across the employment sector, including former trade union officials, members of the business community and academics appointed by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills.

What made you choose to work for Acas?

“A friend of mine joined Acas five years before I did. He told me that he thought I’d like it… No one job is the same. I like the variety.”

What is the greatest misconception people have about Acas?

People think we’re a trade union because we’re an acronym and because we get involved in strikes.” [Terry explained that Acas is impartial; it does not take sides].

How do you see the role of Acas developing over the next five years?

“I think that we’re going to be a lot more digital in our response. Increasingly more of our services – particularly our advice and training – will be available online [or in a digital format].

What is the most surprising experience you have had during your time with Acas?

“My first mediation involved two midwives who had fallen out. Both felt the other didn’t respect each other.” After a particularly difficult morning session, Terry did not hold out much hope of any progress being made and decided to break for lunch. Terry explained how he told the ladies that they could get their lunch from a retailer some distance away. After lunch he went to their respective waiting rooms. Neither lady was present. He wandered into a nearby seating area to discover the two former warring parties sitting on sofas talking amicably. They had resolved their differences themselves. This taught Terry never to underestimate the power of people being brought together to talk.”

Has the recession had an impact on the nature of cases brought to Acas?

Terry described how in his experience employers were increasingly talking to their employees about changes brought about the recession. He noted how, in the private sector, many employers had chosen to consult with their employees; reducing hours and, in some cases, taking pay cuts rather than make redundancies.

Research has shown that for every £1 invested by the public purse in Acas, there is a £12 dividend for the UK’s economy by way of return. A final thought; employees and employers are not compelled to use the services of Acas but in light of the above and what I heard they might be well advised to give real consideration to using the service.

Thanks again to Terry for his time.

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