What’s in store for Irish employers in 2014?

Business | Wed 29 Jan | Author – Business & Finance

On January 15th the Government published its Legislative Programme for the Dail Spring/Summer session. With in excess of 160 bills at different stages of development and agreement, 2014 looks set to be an interesting and eventful year for employment legislation in Ireland, writes Laura Murphy.

Some of the more notable Bills for employers include:

  • Parental Leave Bill: the Bill proposes to increase unpaid parental leave from 18 to 36 weeks, as well as the sharing of maternity leave between both parents.
  • Public Holidays Bill: it is intended to create a new public holiday, La na Poblachta, to fall on April 24th, a controversial date being the first day of the 1916 Easter Rising.
  • Workplace Relations Bill: set to reform employment bodies, bringing together the Equality Tribunal, the National Employment Rights Authority, the Labour Relations Commission and some functions of the Employment Appeals Tribunal under one structure.
  • Industrial Relations Bill: will look to reform collective bargaining rights, as well as provide a new framework for JLCs and REAs.

However, it is the Protected Disclosure Bill, commonly known as the ‘Whistleblowing Bill’, which is creating much anticipation. The Bill has been designed to protect employees, contractors, agency staff and trainees from having action taken against them, or being penalised in anyway, for raising concerns about misconduct in the workplace. The Bill encourages workers to come forward and disclose information in relation to wrong doing. Under the Bill, employees who are dismissed for ‘whistleblowing’ could be awarded up to five years’ remuneration. Once passed the Bill will be a weapon in combating corruption and will promote accountability and transparency.

In the past in Ireland, there have been several cases where corruption appears to have won over the truth. Most recently there has been a wave of high-profile cases of questionable practices in Irish workplaces, to name a few: the CRC scandal, the topping up of salaries of State employed medical professionals, and even more strangely, the extraordinary refusal of Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan to allow a Garda Sergeant to testify on alleged wrong doing. One has to question whether such practices would have lasted so long, or happened at all, if protected forums for individuals to come forward and ‘blow the whistle’ existed.

Ireland’s current lack of overall whistleblowing legislation or protection for those who feel wrong-doing has occurred, has fed a ‘cover-up’ culture in many workplaces. The introduction of formal legislation on whistleblowing has long been campaigned for, most notably by Labour’s Pat Rabbitte and the Irish branch of Transparency International. Considering the UK introduced their Public Interest Disclosure Act in 1999, with the same objectives as the Protected Disclosure Bill, this legislation is long overdue.

The UN and the Council of Europe have both set out recommendations on international best practices on whistleblower protection. If Ireland wants to move forward and be seen worldwide as a reliable place to do business it is critical for this Bill to be passed and for robust legislation to be put in place that promotes transparent working practices and reflects the approach taken at an international level.

Employers need to prepare for the introduction of the Bill. The first step in any preparation will be to review internal policies and procedures and to start considering establishing a whistleblowing policy to be included in the company staff handbook. Being a new legal principal in Ireland, there is little case law to guide employers, however, some key considerations should be included in any policy. Clear details should be set regarding how an employee should raise a concern of wrongdoing. Who they should speak to and what they should do if they feel their concern has not been addressed appropriately should be specified, as well as confirmation of the protection and confidentiality, where appropriate, that will be afforded to the whistleblower. Employers may also want to encourage employees to raise their concerns internally first, before raising the concern externally.

If a whistleblower does come forward, employers are minded to listen carefully to the concerns, never prejudging or brushing aside concerns. Some form of initial investigation will need to be conducted to establish the credence of the issue, whilst maintaining communication with the whistleblower. It cannot be understated how important it will be for employers to deal with any concerns raised internally in a timely fashion. Failure to address alleged wrongdoing could potentially see the issue escalate and enter the public domain unnecessarily, where unlimited damage could be done.

The Bill was originally scheduled to be passed and become law in August 2013; it is unlikely that there will be a further extended delay, making The Public Disclosure Bill a real concern for Irish employers.

Laura MurphyLaura Murphy MCIPD is the HR specialist with Thesaurus Software Ltd. Murphy is also a chartered member of The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and a graduate of International Business and Languages at DCU.