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A grievance is any concern, problem or complaint that an employee raises with their employer. Examples include discrimination and dismissal. When employees are not satisfied with the outcome of their grievance or it was not conducted properly, they may raise the matter with a tribunal.
According to tribunal statistics, there are on average 109,685 tribunal claims every year (gov.uk, 2019). Employers can face thousands of pounds in awards for dismissal and discrimination.
Tribunal cases may be a result of employers not adequately addressing employee concerns, applying correct policy or being properly trained. Employee concerns should be taken seriously by employers. When internal disputes are raised by employees, employers should follow the necessary grievance processes. At the very least, employers should follow the Acas guidelines.
Why are grievance procedures important?
- They provide individuals with a course of action if they have a complaint which they are unable to resolve informally.
- They provide structure, timelines and contacts to resolve issues.
- They help resolve matters internally without going through an employment tribunal.
Once a dispute is raised by an employee, it may be beneficial to first try and resolve the matter using informal methods such as mediation. This reduces stress for all parties, unnecessary meetings, and workplace gossip. However, if the matter is serious, or informal routes have led to little success, an employer should follow the grievance process, using guidelines set out by Acas.
As previous studies suggest, there is a gap in how managers perceive their conflict resolution skills compared to how employees perceive these efforts. If handled correctly, sensitively and in a timely manner, managing conflict informally can result in employees that are content with the outcome.
Handling grievances formally
Employers should ensure that staff are aware of the formal option available to them that includes:
- Information on all stages of the Acas Code as well as the organisation’s own procedures.
- How to raise the complaint and appropriate sources of support.
- Timescales for the organisation to deal with the complaint.
- The stages of the grievance procedure, for example how a complaint may be raised with the next level of management if a satisfactory resolution is not reached.
- An employee or worker should have the right to be accompanied to grievance hearings by a colleague or trade union representative as explained above.
A grievance hearing is a meeting where the employee can discuss, without interruption or judgement, their concerns.
All workplace disciplinary and grievance processes should be well documented and stored correctly.
All Employers should follow a full and fair grievance procedure. They should:
- Deal with grievances fairly and consistently.
- Investigate as much information as possible.
- Allow the employee to bring a relevant person to a grievance meeting.
- Give everyone a chance to have their say before deciding.
- Take actions and make decisions as soon as they can.
- Allow the employee to appeal against the grievance outcome.
Information should include what a grievance hearing is and how it works as well as including what information must be contained in a written grievance.
If a grievance is about someone such as a client or customer who does not work for the company, the employer should follow the formal grievance procedure in the same way.
Sometimes, a grievance can coincide with a disciplinary. The employer can pause the disciplinary procedure and deal with the grievance first. If the disciplinary and grievance cases are related, the employer can deal with both at the same time.
If more than one person in a workplace has the same grievance, it might be best to raise it collectively. The employer and employees should follow your workplace ‘collective grievance’ policy.
If your workplace does not have this, the employees could:
- Gather more information from their trade union or workplace representative.
- Raise the grievance themselves, for example by agreeing on one person to raise it and communicate for all of them.
This section details the process including how to raise a concern, best practices, the hearing and important points for the employer.
Throughout the process, it is important for the employer to keep talking confidentially with the employee who raised the grievance and others involved in the grievance.
Clear, regular and confidential communication can help avoid:
- A drop in work morale.
- Stress or other mental health issues.
- Further action, such as more grievances.
- Legal action later on.
Going through a grievance procedure can be very stressful, so it is also important that employers consider the wellbeing and mental health of any employees involved.
Looking out for employees’ wellbeing and offering support can help prevent:
- Mental health issues arising.
- Existing mental health issues getting worse.
As well as regular communication, the employer could arrange any meetings in a more private and comfortable location if this would help the employee.
The grievance hearing procedure
The process should be outlined by the organisation and made available to the employees. Should an issue arise which has not been resolved through other informal means, such as mediation, the employee with the grievance should put it in writing to whoever is most appropriate. This could be their line manager, HR manager or employer.
The letter or email should include:
- The nature of the issue.
- Evidence, for example a payslip or employment contract.
- What their expectations are for a resolution from the employer.
Not following a formal grievance procedure can affect:
- People’s morale and confidence at work.
- The outcome, and the possibility of leading to a tribunal case.
- The organisation’s reputation as a fair employer and ideal place to work.
A tribunal will consider whether an employee has a genuine reason for not following a formal procedure. For example, the employee might find it difficult to attend a hearing with someone who has bullied them in the workplace.
Before the hearing
Before holding a hearing, employers should:
- Give the employee notice so that they can prepare their case.
- Carry out a full investigation if necessary and take statements from any witnesses who cannot attend.
- Make it clear that the employee can bring a colleague or union representative if they want to.
- Arrange for another manager to attend to make sure that the hearing is conducted properly.
- Arrange for someone to take notes.
When an employee raises a formal grievance, the employer should arrange to hold a meeting within five working days. This gives enough time for all parties to prepare without unnecessarily delaying the process.
The hearing or meeting is the opportunity for the person who raised the grievance to:
- Explain the grievance.
- Show any evidence they have.
It is also a chance for the employer to ask questions, so that they know what steps to take.
In the meeting the employer should ask the person who raised the grievance to:
- Provide more information about the issues/incidents.
- Discuss how it could be resolved.
The employer can arrange for someone not involved in the grievance to:
- Take notes at the meeting.
- Act as a witness if necessary.
To keep the procedure fair, the employer should:
- Consider information or evidence from all sides.
- See if a similar grievance has happened before and aim to follow the same fair procedure.
- Evaluate the company’s own procedures and ensure they are fair and up to date.
- Arrange for an interpreter if the employee has difficulty speaking English.
- Consider whether reasonable adjustments are needed for a disabled employee or anyone they bring with them.
Employers should keep a confidential record of:
- The minutes and attendees of the meeting.
- Evidence they have gathered.
- Any decisions or actions taken.
The employee should do their best to attend the meeting on the date set and can bring any evidence about the grievance (for example, relevant emails) to show and discuss at the meeting.
If the employee has missed the hearing, efforts should be made to rearrange the hearing as soon as possible, without unnecessary delay. If the employee is off sick, employers can offer other options to conduct the hearing.
By law, any employee can invite a relevant person (‘companion’) to a grievance meeting, if it’s about a legal or contractual issue. This is known as ‘the right to be accompanied’.
The person must choose their companion from one of the following:
- A colleague.
- A trade union representative.
- An official employed by a trade union.
Under discrimination law the employer needs to consider a disabled employee’s request to bring someone else for additional support, such as a carer.
It is the employer’s decision to consider if the person would like to bring anyone else. It can depend on the contract – for example, some employment contracts might allow for a spouse or legal representative. If the employee wants to bring a companion, they should tell their employer who that person is as soon as possible. The companion should also be given enough time to prepare for the meeting (for example, to look at any evidence).
They should give the person who raised the grievance the chance to:
- Explain their side.
- Express how they feel – they might need to ‘let off steam’, particularly if the grievance is serious or has lasted a long time.
- Ask questions.
- Show evidence.
- Provide details of any witnesses the employer should contact.
The following steps are useful for the day of the grievance hearing:
- Open the meeting by introducing all the participants and explaining their roles.
- Start the discussion by stating what you understand to be the grievance. Ask the employee to confirm that your understanding is correct.
- Ask questions to gain clarity. Through inexperience or nerves, the employee may only present some facts from their own perspective. It is good practice to take notes so the employee can be questioned further if needed.
- Be objective – this is a sensitive matter. It is best not to take criticism personally.
- When your employee has detailed their concerns, summarise it back to them. This is to confirm your understanding of the situation.
Some useful tips for employers:
- Remain impartial, fair and unbiased.
- Do your best to understand the feelings of the person raising the grievance.
- Take notes or appoint someone else to take them.
- Go through the evidence thoroughly.
- Take care in deciding on any actions – and considering all the evidence –before making any quick decisions.
- Consider ending the meeting and resuming it later, if you need to investigate statements and facts from the meeting.
- Summarise up the main points at the end (Acas guidelines).
With the permission of the person raising the grievance, the companion is allowed to:
- Take notes.
- Set out the case of the person raising the grievance.
- Speak for them.
- Talk with them during the meeting.
It is also important to consider the limitations of the companion. The companion cannot answer questions put to the person raising the grievance or prevent anyone else at the meeting from explaining their side of things.
The employer might need to take some time to investigate so they can make a fair decision. If necessary, they can set up another grievance meeting once they have found out more information.
At the end of the meeting, the employer should give the employee copies of the meeting record and notes taken and let them know when they will receive the outcome of the decision. This should be in line with the policy guidelines.
If there are delays, for example if further investigation is needed, the employer should explain how long the delays will be and why. The employer can withhold some information in certain circumstances (for example, to protect a witness).
Employers may need to share the information for various reasons. Under data protection law (UK GDPR), the employer should get consent from the person who provided information before sharing it. This might mean the employer needs to make some information anonymous before sharing it.
What happens after a grievance hearing?
The grievance outcome and details must remain confidential. However, where appropriate, it can be a good idea for the employer to talk privately with any staff involved in the grievance.
This can help avoid any negative effects on the business, for example:
- Negative feelings.
- Low work morale.
Regardless of the outcome, it is a good idea for employers to keep a written record of all grievance cases to help with any questions or similar cases in the future. In line with data protection law, records should be confidential and kept for as long as necessary (Data Protection Act).
Employees may raise an appeal if they felt the outcome was not fair, wrong, severe or not conducted properly. This is the right of an employee by law and must be taken seriously by the employer.
If the employee feels they have tried everything and their problem is still not resolved, they may wish to pursue the case through an employment tribunal.
Grievances during COVID-19
Acas has issued new guidance on disciplinary and grievance procedures during the COVID-19 pandemic. The approach is dependent on the nature of the complaint, whether the workplace is open and what the social distancing measures are.
Some minor offences may be resolved by an informal telephone discussion.
More serious matters may need various approaches if social distancing prevents normal disciplinary processes, such as pausing the process, or conducting investigations and/or meetings remotely. Grievance procedures should not be delayed due to COVID-19 and employees should be encouraged to discuss issues.
Workplace conflict has been steadily increasing due to a variety of factors. Employee concerns can be resolved informally. However, in some cases, the employee may decide to take a formal route which will include a grievance hearing.
Some studies suggest that poor grievance handling increases negative organisational outcomes such as reduced productivity, absenteeism, low morale, disobeying of orders, negative behaviour and reduced quality of work (Obiekwe, 2019). It is imperative that employers are aware of employee rights, the company grievance policies and the Acas guidelines on grievances.
After writing a formal letter, the employer should arrange a grievance hearing to gather details of the complaint from the employee. Once all the details and evidence has been gathered, a decision can be made in a timely manner and the outcome communicated to the employee. The employee can appeal the decision if it was wrong or unfair. Failure to provide an acceptable solution may lead to an employment tribunal.