Managing workplace grievances

By Anthony Wolny | 14th September 2018 | 13 min read

With most adults spending a significant proportion of their lives at work, the right to work in a safe and comfortable environment is indisputable. It should be guaranteed that employees can attend their place of work and confidently perform the functions of their role free from any type of workplace conflict.

However, despite this largely being understood at a base level, the UK is still considered to have something of a problem with workplace harassment and bullying, many of which inevitably result in workplace grievances. A YouGov poll for the Trades Union Congress (TUC) showed that up to 29 percent of people have been the victims of workplace harassment – that equates to up to 9.1million people, a huge section of the UK workforce.

For many HR personnel, managers and union representatives, the traditional path of the grievance procedure therefore provides a consistent road map by which disputes can be managed. Being able to manage conflict effectively is the key to creating a healthy, productive and comfortable working atmosphere.

What is a workplace grievance?

A workplace grievance commonly manifests itself as a concern, problem or complaint that an employee may have within your workplace. It should be deemed serious enough to be raised with either a line or senior manager – commonly referred to as raising a grievance.

An employee is also entitled to raise about a workplace grievance about areas such as:

  • The type of tasks they are asked to do within their role
  • Any terms and conditions of their employment contract, such as hours or pay
  • The way they feel they are being treated within the workplace
  • Feeling discriminated against for any reason. This could include any issues related to race, age, disability or sexuality.

Who can raise a grievance?

Anyone with employee status within a company is legally entitled to raise a grievance about their work, workplace, or a colleague that they work with.

Your worker should be sure that they have full employee status prior to raising a grievance. They are likely to not be an employee if they are:

  • An agency worker
  • A self-employed contractor
  • A home worker

Anyone who may fall within this category will still be entitled to various rights within the workplace, but they are likely to differ slightly to those of an established employee.

How should it be raised?

In the first instance, a grievance is normally raised verbally and informally by an employee – usually they speak privately with a manager and outline their concerns. If the complaint has been ongoing for a while, they may choose to pre- prepare some notes on the situation to ensure that all the points they wish to cover are imparted correctly.

If an informal grievance conversation (detailed below), does not resolve the matter in the first instance, your employee will then move to invoke your formal grievance procedure. The complaint will then be required to be detailed in writing, and in full. It is your responsibility to lay this out clearly in your company handbook, but most businesses will follow, loosely or otherwise, the ACAS Code of Practice on disciplinary and grievances.

Can it be dealt with informally?

Often, the best way to resolve a grievance issue is to try and work through the matter informally, normally at an early stage of the process. Your employee should normally request a meeting with their immediate manager to discuss the nature of their concerns – however, if the concern involves the manager in question, or they feel that they would rather raise the issue with someone else, they should ensure that they speak to someone at a similar level of superiority.

It is normally helpful, depending on the type of grievance raised and its level of severity, for the employee to suggest ways in which they feel their manager, or the wider business, could work to resolve the problem.

What if an informal resolution doesn’t occur?

If an informal resolution cannot be reached, yourself and the employee in question will then need to invoke your formal grievance procedure.

As discussed previously, this will normally be line with wider, commonly-accepted ACAS guidelines. Their code of practice sets out standards of fairness and reasonable behaviour that employees and employers alike will be expected to follow during this situation. You should ensure that your own grievance procedure is clearly detailed within your company handbook, HR manual, or standard contract of employment.

The first step of the formal grievance procedure would normally require your employee to write a letter to you, detailing exactly what the nature of their complaint is. This letter must be clearly dated, and a copy kept by both parties. It is then your responsibility to respond to the complaint, again in writing, and to set up a formal grievance hearing in order to discuss the issue in detail.

What should my grievance policy contain?

As discussed above, most businesses, especially those on a smaller scale, tend to loosely follow the ACAS code of practice. It is not a legal requirement to follow the Code to the letter, but, if the matter were to reach the stage of an employment tribunal, how closely the Code was followed by both employee and employer is likely to be called into question when deciding on a claim for compensation.

What structure should a formal grievance procedure follow?

Most grievance claims tend to follow a set order of procedures, and it is likely that those detailed below will provide you with a rough structure by which to flesh out your wider grievance policy:

  • Written statements – If informal resolution fails, your employee will then provide you with a written statement detailing the grievance. Legally, you must also respond in writing, and state how and when you will investigate the claim in question. You must also set a date for a formal grievance meeting to discuss the issue.
  • Investigating the grievance – At this stage, you must gather witness statements, if applicable, and as much evidence as possible regarding the grievance. This could involve questioning other employees, monitoring computers or behaviour, and speaking to senior members of staff.
  • Meeting with your employee – This meeting will allow for both sides to discuss the complaint in detail, and put forward any supporting evidence and details that may be required. Remember that your employee has the legal right to be accompanied by either a colleague or a trade union representative to this meeting.
  • Making a decision on the situation – At this point, you should weigh up the situation and all the evidence that applies. Whatever decision you decide to make, whether it involves further meetings to monitor and hopefully resolve the complaint, issuing a formal warning, or even dismissal, you must inform your employee in writing as soon as possible.

What if an employee appeals the decision?

If your employee does not agree with your final decision, they should write a letter to you that details explicitly that they are detailing the decision, and their exact reasons for doing so. At this point, upon receipt of this letter you must arrange a further grievance meeting in which to discuss the appeal.

Where possible, and to avoid any potential bias, a different manager of a similar level of seniority should be called to attend the meeting. Again, you should keep in mind that the employee retains the right to be accompanied to this second meeting – their companion can be the same person as before, or someone different who still fits with the criteria above.

Again, the culmination of this meeting should result in you writing to the employee to detail your final decision on the grievance subject. If the employee is still not happy with your decision on the subject, you may then look to processes such as mediation or, as a last resort, an employment tribunal.

Should I consider mediation?

Mediation can often be an extremely effective way to resolve a workplace grievance. It is a voluntary and completely confidential process, and can be initiated by both employer and employee alike. The process will normally involve sourcing an independent, impartial person or company, who will work with you to help to resolve the grievance situation. This will typically be undertaken during a dispute between two people, or if an issue involves a wider team or group.

Mediators are not employed to make situational judgments, or determine outcomes. Instead, they ask questions that could help to uncover any unaddressed underlying problems, assist all parties to understand the issue in question, and to try to help them to clarify the options for resolving the issue.

If all mediation attempts fail, many employees may then look to take their employers to an employment tribunal.

What is the last stage of the process?

Following any attempts at mediation, and as a last resort, your employee may consider making an employment tribunal claim. These are commonly used as a final, formal stage at which employers and employees can resolve any differences.

It should also be noted that your employee does not necessarily have to raise a formal grievance prior to raising a claim at an employment tribunal. However, it should be noted that any resulting compensation awarded may be reduced if the employee cannot provide evidence of a formal grievance raised.

You should also be aware that in most cases, your employee has a time limit against which they must submit their employment claim to the tribunal. This is normally set at three months minus one day from the date on which the grievance being claimed against last occurred. Any claims submitted once this date has passed are usually not considered.