3 reasons why managers get labour law wrong


Labour law expert Ivan Israelstam explains why HR practitioners are not the best providers of labour law training.

Labour law training is both a national priority and an operational necessity for employers. Failure to get it right can often result in legal expenses and penalties resulting from poorly handled employee relations. The answer to this problem lies in the principle that managers should receive training that is provided by someone who is both a labour law expert and a training expert. This will ensure both that the content of the training is right and that the necessary learning is fully passed on to those that need it. 

It can be unwise to assign management labour law training to an in-house HR Officer, unless that individual is a de facto expert in labour law. While this may be the cheaper option, we have found that HR Officers are not always the best choice for providing labour law training.

Here are five reasons why companies get their labour law training for management wrong:

1 HR generalists are not necessarily training experts. While they themselves may understand the material and develop IR skills they do not always have the expertise to put these across to line management. In such cases, corporate IR practitioners sometimes feel embarrassed to call in outside training professionals to carry out the training. While this is understandable it should not be allowed to stand in the way of organisational skill development, particularly in an area as vital as industrial relations.

Those HR/IR practitioners who do have some training skills often implement the training in an academic or theoretical way. The training often omits relevant practical exercises and industry-specific case studies. And very seldom is the training ongoing. The result is that the line managers undergoing this “training” get stuck at the theoretical knowledge stage and do not develop the skill necessary to apply the knowledge effectively on the shop floor and in the disciplinary hearing room.

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2 Senior management attitude. Sometimes, senior and line managers at whom the training is targeted, have the attitude of, “let the expert handle daily disciplinary problems, I’ll just mess it up”. But the implementation of discipline is an integral part of line management’s function and no manager can turn down the opportunity to add to his/her skills. It is therefore important that the training is offered in such a way that the line managers see it as a tool towards success, and that it is presented in a fresh and stimulating way geared towards facilitating the manager’s effectiveness and status. 

Even when line managers do attend IR or labour law training they forget what they learnt after a week. The training programme, therefore, needs to be designed professionally to ensure long-term retention and effective carry over on to the job. How often are there cases of management being is under ‘too much pressure to waste time on training’. This is because the typical South African line manager and supervisor is much more of a doer than a manager. Too many managers get caught in the vicious circle of being too busy “doing” and therefore having no time to manage and to develop management skills, and this itself is a problem which may have to be addressed via management training.

3 Insufficient funds budgeted for training. lt is a never-ending source of wonderment to me that employers are not prepared to spend a few hundred rand on training a manager but do not mind taking the risk of having to spend tens of thousands of rands on going to the Labour Courts. We have represented countless employers taken to court because a manager mishandled a shop floor grievance or disciplinary matter and the employee was unfairly dismissed. ln some cases, because the line manager mishandled the matter, the line manager gets fired for incurring unnecessary legal costs. The company then faces another unfair dismissal case. Employers often lose potentially good managers this way at great cost, whereas proper training could have avoided the whole mess.

Also related to budgeting, is that training is only limited to managers and not all employees. This can be a problem as some managers believe that, unless their employees receive the same training as they do, the exercise will be a waste of time. These managers are perfectly correct because, where employees are not trained on the LRA (for example) or get their input from union meetings they will look at labour relations from a very different perspective to that of the manager.

It is crucially important to get the training right first time. A badly trained manager is worse than one who has no training at all. Therefore, the cost of not using the right trainer far outweighs the need to save pennies by taking second best.

Ivan Israelstam is the chief executive of Labour Law Management Consulting

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