Dispute in the workplace: a story of change and complexity

Kirsty Watt , Director of Strategy and External Affairs

Kirsty Watt is the Director of Strategy and External Affairs at Acas. Kirsty was previously Deputy Director (Disadvantage and Place) at the Department for Education. She led teams to help tackle disadvantage issues faced by children and young people.

The latest Acas data tracking the trends on conflict in the workplace shows a mixed picture. There are fewer collective disputes and increased complex individual cases going to the employment tribunal. It's clear that the challenges for employers of operating in the current environment continue.

Collective action changing?

Quarter 3 volumes of collective disputes (October to December 2023) are down. Within collective conciliation, there was a drop in volumes of formal collective cases in late 2023, with cases in Q3 down 24% on Q2 and down 30% on the same period last year.

This echoes the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on numbers of days lost to industrial dispute, which show an overall falling trend from the recent high of 830,000 days lost in December 2022 to 108,000 in December. The picture from less formal 'pre-talks' conciliation cases is quite different: these have increased in volume, intensity and complexity.

It's too early to draw much inference: this is just the second statistical release we have produced using our new data systems and the ONS data continues to fluctuate.

What we do know is that employers are increasingly stepping forward to seek resolution. Historically most requests for Acas involvement have come from trade unions. In 2021 to 2022 we received 40% more referrals from trade unions than employers: this year (to date) employer referrals have exceeded trade union referrals by 6%.

We're going to need to watch the trends for a little longer to know the true emerging picture.

Warning sounds from employees

While overall volumes of individual disputes remain consistent, we have seen an increase of the most complex cases, usually linked to discrimination or whistleblowing, entering the early conciliation system. Around 33% fell into this category in the first 2 quarters of this year, rising to 37% in Q3. This is likely to have knock-on effects on the employment tribunal, as a higher proportion of these more complex cases go on to lodge a claim.

Acas helpline data gives some insight to the temperature in the wider workplace. 'Discipline, dismissal and grievance' is almost always our most frequent call topic: this quarter we saw a higher proportion of these types of calls than we have seen since records started in 2015 (42% of all calls). And 4 of the 5 most visited web pages were about 'discipline, dismissal and grievance' procedures.

We asked our advisers for their insights on the types of calls they were receiving about dismissals. This provided some clues on where employers could improve practice and where wider pressures are being felt. We've seen:

  • employees dismissed by their employer without going through fair procedures
  • more calls about dismissals from employees with less than 2 years of service
  • an increase in frequency of calls about insolvency dismissals or where the doors to the business are simply shut

In a complex and fluctuating environment what remains constant is that resolution is often possible. With the help of Acas, and where parties engage with us at an early stage before issues become intractable, we can often help those involved in disputes to see things from a different perspective, to be open to listening to the other side, and to be creative in finding a mutually agreeable way forward.

Read our bulletin on early conciliation and employment tribunal data for October to December 2023

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