How to avoid the wrath of Fair Work: Four tips from the Ombudsman

Fair Work ombudsman Natalie James has outlined a range of measures that businesses can take in order to stay above the law.

Speaking at the HR Summit in Sydney yesterday afternoon, James issued a clear warning to businesses that aren’t doing the right thing.

“Compliance is not optional,” she said. “Ignorance is not an excuse.”

James offered the following pieces of advice in her speech to help businesses make sure they do not become entangled in disputes involving FairWork.

1. Be knowledgeable and go beyond basic compliance

James said workplace relationships are just like any other relationship. There can be problems, communication breakdowns and personality clashes. She encourages business owners to be aware of what they have to comply with to make sure their companies stay above the law.

However she also said if businesses go above and beyond what is necessary, issues are far less likely to arise.

“We have free information available on our website,” she said “Not just obvious ‘below the line’ things like complying with minimum wages, but also on topics such as balancing work and family and hiring young workers.”

Cases that are brought to the Fair Work Ombudsman have an obvious financial cost to businesses, but there is also a company’s reputation at stake.

“Stories about underpaid workers grab headlines,” she said. “It is an issue of public interest that gets the attention of journalists and readers around the country.”

2. Find an acceptable resolution as soon as possible

FairWork is often involved in situations that have reached a “dramatic crescendo”, according to James.

“There was bound to be a point where the story might have ended up differently,” she said. “With a thoughtful and early intervention from the employer, perhaps it might have remained sotto voce.”

If issues are addressed early on, intervention by FairWork may not be necessary. This can save your business time, money and bad PR.

3. Self-audit

James said things often go wrong because complacency has “crept” into a business. The key to tackling this issue is to ensure policies and procedures are regularly reviewed so that there is compliance with the law.

She gave the example of Super-A-Mart, a large furniture chain store. In 2011 the company back-paid $1.3 million to almost 900 staff members due to a complaint brought to FairWork.

“Getting into the habit of conducting self-audits to monitor your own compliance could avoid these types of issues,” she said. “If you find mistakes we encourage you to seek out our assistance.”

Key areas for businesses to focus on include auditing of wages, franchise relationships and how the business is engaging with employees.

4. Don’t disadvantage those with caring responsibilities

James was clear to point out that if businesses want to attract and retain talent, then they need to consider how they treat family relationships and parental leave.

“A workplace that wants to be an employer of choice should be striving for a culture where women are not worried that having children will harm their career prospects,” she said. “It should also be a culture that supports men in accessing entitlements.”

James said being flexible with work hours that balance the needs of family life isn’t just good practice – it makes business sense. A culture of “real choice to employees to access leave entitlements” can help retain valued staff members, decrease turnover rates and boost employee’s morale and productivity.

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