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What's the buzz on probationary employment?

What’s the buzz on probationary employment?
Thursday 27 July 2006

As the hornets settle in battle positions around Wayne Mapp’s controversial ‘90-Day Bill’, Margaret Morrison, employment advocate at Community Law Canterbury, reads through client files from the previous evening’s free employment law advice service. The centre’s experience of employment law has been at the grizzly end: picking up the pieces when workplace relationships break down. It is not uncommon to encounter employees with no written agreements, with work conditions changed arbitrarily, or who have been dismissed unfairly. The proposed 90-Day Bill would directly affect many of these clients, and Morrison is understandably concerned.

“When the Employment Contracts Act became the Employment Relationships Act in 2000,” Morrison recalls, “employment was no longer seen as just another contract between two people, employer and employee, but instead a commitment to a living human relationship in which both parties are expected to act in good faith.” She acknowledges that this ‘good faith’ requirement does put more pressure on employers to shape up, but feels this is outweighed by the increased legal remedies available to employees who have been unjustly treated.

There is nothing in the current law to prevent an employer from setting a period of probation for new employees, letting them know if there is anything they need to improve, and if they still do not perform to reasonable expectations, terminating their employment at the end of the probation period. An employer can even dismiss an employee instantly for certain types of conduct, such as theft, if this condition is part of the employment agreement. Morrison fears that Mapp’s reforms would tip the legal balance against employees, exposing them to exploitation by employers more focused on profit margins than properly managing their staff.

For the year ending June 2006, Community Law Canterbury advised over 200 clients at its specialist employment law service, and across all its services advised over 400 clients either about their employment agreements or about a personal grievance relating to their employment. The centre’s clients range from young people employed in their first job, typically working shifts under a standard form agreement, to clients with years of service in their job who suddenly find themselves with a dilemma at work.

Most matters dealt with by CLC are mediated to a mutually successful resolution, under the mediation provisions of the Employment Relations Act. Morrison believes that the option of mediation is crucial in resolving employment disputes, particularly in the early stages of appointment where the relationship between employer and employee is being established. For many clients, mediation is a very effective process that should be encouraged by our laws rather than removed for the first 90 days of employment, as would happen under Mapp’s recent Bill.

Community Law Canterbury provides a regular employment law service on Wednesday evenings where, by appointment, members of the community can receive free advice from an employment advocate.


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