You have been sacked but think your employer behaved unfairly. Or you have just returned from maternity leave expecting your old job back to find that you are now in a different role and have effectively been demoted. What do you do? In these instances, an increasing number of people are taking their grievances to the Employment Tribunals Service (ETS).
Employment tribunals were created as part of the Industrial Training Act 1964 - although they were initially called industrial tribunals - to consider appeals by employers against training levies. They are independent judicial bodies, but without the formal, legalistic rules of evidence and procedures on which most courts are based. Since they were first set up, they have greatly increased in terms of scope and usage and the ETS now presides over more than 50 areas of jurisdiction.
Their main function is to resolve workplace disputes. "They are supposed to be a quick, cheap and easy way to provide redress for employees," says Peter Skyte, national secretary of the IT professionals' association at trade union Amicus.
Cases can address anything from race discrimination to forcing an employee to work overlong hours. Claims usually need to be brought within three months of the event.
The tribunals have become so popular and effective that the ETS says it has been overwhelmed with cases. "Applications to employment tribunals have risen by more than 60% in the past three years and by 25% in the last year alone," says Roger Heathcote, chief executive at the ETS. Last year, the ETS recorded 130,408 registered applications. The average length and complexity of hearings has also risen and overall costs have spiralled.
After much lobbying by businesses and organisations such as the Confederation of British Industry, the Government is now trying to cut the number of hearings by 25%. It is using the Employment Bill 2001 to attempt to shift the onus of responsibility onto the employee by proposing that they have to exhaust every conceivable means in the workplace to resolve a dispute and only if that fails can they turn to the tribunal service.
There has been much criticism of this section of the Bill, partly because employees do not always have suitable recourse to internal processes. For example, if an individual has been unfairly dismissed, they may not have had the chance to go through corporate channels to contest their dismissal, and relationships could have broken down so much that communication is impossible.
Skyte is concerned that some employers may only go through the motions when following internal grievance procedures. However, he agrees with the Government and business that the best place to resolve any problem is in the workplace. "Tribunals should only ever be a last resort," he says.
Anyone who feels their position at work is becoming untenable should talk to their line manager. If that fails, or they are the problem, human resources departments are there to sort out such issues. Or there are always the unions to champion your cause. Skyte says people should not feel shy about approaching their union before circumstances get out of hand - he has successfully mediated between employers and employees before and thinks many problems can be ironed out if they are addressed at an early stage.
Amicus is used to dealing with workplace disputes in the IT sector and knows the kind of problems that keep cropping up. "We have had a string of unfair dismissal claims, for example," says Skyte. "A lot of work is project-related or time-constrained and sometimes those people bidding might not be those doing the work and they have unrealistic timescales and ideas about the resources."
Should the project fall behind schedule or, as sometimes happens, an IT professional becomes sick because of the pressure, the employer might decide they are underperforming or are not committed enough and give them the boot.
The expectation that ITers will work around-the-clock is a big problem, particularly for anyone with a family. "There is a long-hours culture in the IT sector and, as a result, there may be fewer allowances made for commitments outside of the workplace, such as family," explains Skyte. "We had a case of a woman who wanted to leave work at between 5.30pm and 6pm and have lunch breaks. The company didn't accept that and thought lunch was for wimps. She was regarded as being inflexible, so they put a lot of pressure on her and eventually got rid of her. In these cases, employers do not say it is because the person would not stay until eight at night, but they might say they were not flexible enough."
Women can have a particularly hard time of it in the workplace. Skyte says pregnant women who are concerned about how their company will treat them when they return to work need to speak to their employer and union about it before they go on maternity leave.
Both Skyte and Mike Emmott, advisor on employee relations at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, believe individuals need to remember that it is far better to resolve any such issues in your current job than go to tribunal and then have to start looking for a new job.
Tribunals are very good at what they do, but few people - less than 1% of successful applicants - are re-instated or re-employed by their employer after a tribunal case. Despite the stories of big payouts for race and sexual discrimination cases, the average compensation award is not that high. For example, in the year up to March 2001, the average compensation award for unfair dismissal recorded by the ETS was £2,515.
Before embarking on a tribunal claim, Emmott says people need to establish why they are doing it and what to expect. "It can be a rollercoaster ride," he says. "You have been through a nasty experience and then you have to replay it in a tribunal. It can be emotionally draining."
For some, it is a cathartic experience, but for most it is a period of anxiety and stress - hardly the best state in which to be job hunting.
To find out more about tribunals, visit www.ets.gov.uk/ or phone 0845-795 9775
Top 10 reasons for employment tribunals
Reason for case and number of cases in 2000/2001
Unfair dismissal: 49,401
Wages act: 41,711
Breach of contract: 31,333
Sex discrimination: 25,940
Equal pay: 17,153
Part-time worker regulations: 12,280
Redundancy pay: 9,440
Working time directive: 6,389
Disability discrimination 4,630
Race discrimination: 4,238
Source:Employment Tribunals Service