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How to... educate clients on employment law

How to... educate clients on employment law

Julie Mills, senior associate at Ashurst’s Melbourne office, says it’s up to lawyers to educate clients on employment law. But this needs a careful, strategic approach.

Julie Mills, senior associate at Ashurst’s Melbourne office, says it’s up to lawyers to educate clients on employment law. But this needs a careful, strategic approach.

The very nature of employment law means it impacts directly on every employee in every workplace. Getting it wrong, or not appreciating its consequences, can have detrimental effects such as litigation, legal costs, loss of management time and general workforce disharmony. For this reason, a solid understanding of the basic elements of employment law should be part of every organisation's risk management and governance strategies. Such an education program then needs to be backed up by management systems to deal with risks before they escalate.

Educating clients about employment law can involve the HR, legal and learning and development teams within the organisation. This can be beneficial in ensuring there is a sharing of knowledge across divisions, an important step to educating staff.

The first step in educating your clients about employment law is to really understand their needs. Understand which risks are real in their workplace, what knowledge they already have and where the gaps are. You need to know where they are getting into trouble and why, and what education they have already undertaken. Be aware that what a client asks for is not necessarily what they need.

The next step is to choose a methodology that works for the topic, the number of people and the purpose of the learning. For example, e-learning options are great for demonstrating compliance by a large number of employees but they are unlikely to bring about cultural change or to engender a greater understanding of why different behaviours are required.

The third step is to determine the content. Always start with the basics. Many managers don't know what modern awards or the National Employment Standards are. Even those that do know what they are might not know the extent to which they apply to their organisation. A good understanding of the basic framework of Australian employment law is essential for clients to know where to start to look for their obligations towards their employees.

The fourth step is to make the learning relevant and practical. Our clients are adults and adults need to be active learners. They need to be involved in the education process – questioning, challenging and applying knowledge and principles as they go. This keeps them focused and able to later apply the principles back in the workplace.

In designing the content and activities, be aware of areas of sensitivity. There may be cultural sensitivities that need to be managed. Similarly, if education is being run as a result of recent issues that have arisen in the workplace (for example, a sexual harassment claim) consider carefully how closely you draft content and activities to the scenario that actually happened in the workplace.

Ensure each module of the learning explains "why". It is one thing for clients to walk out quoting the law. It is another thing for them to walk out understanding why the law is there. The "why" is the "a-ha" moment that clients need to truly apply the learning in their workplace.

Consider finding internal champions to support the education process. This is particularly important for education programs designed to engender cultural change. In these cases it is worthwhile spending time finding champions to be learning partners and consider offering them a role within the program.

Finally, follow-up the program to monitor its impact. Check what strategies the client has put in place following the program to embed the learning and manage their risk exposure (for example, are they reviewing policies, contracts, designing new guidelines, discussing the issues in team meetings…).

Julie Mills is a senior associate in the employment team at Ashurst. She manages the firm's national workplace learning practice and regularly designs and delivers tailored learning programs for clients.Â

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