Most of the scrutiny of the Government's planned changes to employment law has focused on the extension to all firms of the 90-day trial period for new workers. But for business, the most welcome aspect of the package will undoubtedly be the sensible reform of personal grievance dispute procedures. Too often, employers have looked askance at the way Employment Relations Authority processes and decisions have come to the aid of workers who have been dismissed for perfectly valid reasons. A rebalancing is long overdue.

The Government has made two particularly notable changes. First, the authority will be able to filter out vexatious or frivolous claims early on, thereby saving time and money. Secondly, and most importantly, the authority will have to pay more attention to the right outcome, rather than subject employer processes to "pedantic scrutiny". This is intended to stop decisions going against employers because they failed to follow procedure to the exact letter in terms of warnings, areas for employee improvement and suchlike. No longer should loopholes undermine a justified dismissal, sometimes at a cost of thousands of dollars to an employer.

This approach will appeal, especially, to small and medium-sized businesses, who do not have on board personnel managers and their intimate knowledge of employment law. At times businesses can find it nigh on impossible to dismiss even the most flagrant abuser of workplace standards or productivity requirements. The reform should not be interpreted, however, as the green light for loose or unfair practice. Although the detail of the change has yet to be announced, it will still fall to the authority to decide what is a minor oversight with no bearing on the core issue and what is a dire breach of procedure. This should swing the personal grievance process back into better balance rather than substantially in employers' favour.

The Government also plans to change the rules on union access to workplaces, so the consent of the employer will be required. It says access will not be able to be unreasonably withheld. The details of this proposal will be important. They must confirm the Prime Minister's statement that this is a matter of consistency for everyone, enabling visits to occur at times when they will not compromise workplace safety or operations. It should not be a tool for hindering union members' rights.

The most obviously problematic item on the Government agenda is, however, the plan to allow employers to force workers taking sick days to prove they are ill, after just one day. This is intended to allow firms to tackle employees who they suspect are routinely taking 'sickies'. The Labour Minister says it would be used sparingly. So it will if this is a rare problem. But if used widely, it would create a significant burden for all concerned. If, as the minister suggests, this is not a major problem, there seems no good reason to amend the present law, which serves its purpose well enough.

There are, as yet, no statistics to back up John Key's notion that the 90-day probation period in firms with fewer than 20 staff has been especially beneficial for the likes of new immigrants and the young. But a fairly comprehensive Labour Department survey of employers found 40 per cent would not, or were not likely to, have hired a new person without the trial period. Whatever the unions' concerns about this survey not polling employees to any great degree, that seems reason enough to extend the scheme. So, too, does the fact that three-quarters of those employed on trial were taken on permanently.

In sum, this is not the stuff of a strident assault on workers' rights. It is more a measured process that, with a little select committee tweaking, will introduce a greater coherence and flexibility into employment law, especially that relating to personal grievances.