Handling grievances – everything you need to know – 5 handy tips

It is important for an organisation to have an effective grievance procedure which allows staff to raise issues in a way which is fair and…

It is important for an organisation to have an effective grievance procedure which allows staff to raise issues within the workplace in a way which is fair and transparent. The purpose of a well drafted procedure is two-fold; firstly to demonstrate to staff how to raise an issue at work, and secondly to demonstrate to supervisors/managers who deal with grievances the process they should follow.

A good grievance procedure can pay dividends, in that it promotes a culture that values fair treatment of its staff. This can only be positive from a staff management and retention perspective.

Tip 1 – Can the grievance be resolved informally?

The first place to start with any complaint is to see whether the issue can be resolved informally through a conversation with the individual. You will find that most grievances can be dealt with informally.

However it is important that those dealing with grievances understand that an individual should not be pressured into choosing the informal resolution route. At the end of the day, it is their decision whether they would like the matter resolved informally or formally.

Tip 2 – Timing is everything!

It is important that grievances are dealt with promptly for a number of reasons. Memories may fade and information may no longer be available as time passes and this may hamper your ability to resolve the issues at stake. For example where the grievance concerns two members of staff who are not getting on, a tardy resolution may make it harder for the issues between staff to be resolved as the passage of time can polarise positions. It is not uncommon for staff to go off sick when they have raised a grievance, which will make the complaint even more difficult to deal with.

Remember the purpose of a grievance procedure is resolution of the employee’s compliant or issues, ideally as promptly as possible. Undue delay can have the effect of demotivating staff, which is the very opposite of what you are trying to achieve.

Tip 3 – Investigate thoroughly and be alert to new issues

You may find that to resolve the grievance, a formal investigation is required. The amount of investigation you need to do will depend on the nature of the complaint. It generally includes interviewing witnesses, accessing IT systems, collating documentation or a combination of the three. It is important not to take short-cuts, but balance this against the fact the matter needs to be resolved in a timely fashion.

Remember an investigation continues throughout the grievance process which includes any hearings. Make sure that if a new issue is raised, or if the individual raises a new potential avenue of investigation at a hearing, that this is dealt with. Adjourn the meeting if necessary to look into the matter further.

Tip 4 – What happens when a grievance is raised during a disciplinary process?

There are a number of ways in which a disciplinary and grievance process can become entwined. The general position is that there is no requirement to halt a disciplinary process because the individual involved has raised a grievance. At the same time you need to be alive to the need to move both processes forward without undue delay.

However it is not uncommon for an individual who is subject to a disciplinary process to raise a grievance about the disciplinary process itself. Usually the issue is best dealt with as part of the disciplinary hearing or appeal. The grievance process is rarely the correct recourse for an individual’s complaint about the disciplinary process.

Sometimes an individual will raise a grievance after the disciplinary process has ended in an attempt to resurrect an issue that has already been dealt with; a ‘further appeal against an appeal’. In these circumstances you are entitled to say that the matter has already been dealt with during the disciplinary process and that they will not now consider the same issue under the grievance process.

Nevertheless there are some cases where it may be prudent to halt the disciplinary process, although this unusual step is only likely to be appropriate where the matter is very serious. A similar situation may arise where a grievance is raised which is completely unconnected to ongoing disciplinary proceedings, but is raised at the same time. In these circumstances it may be appropriate to deal with the grievance at the same time as the disciplinary or it may be preferable to wait until the disciplinary process has been completed. This will depend on the substance of the grievance and how closely it is connected to the facts and circumstances that underpin the disciplinary case.

Tip 5 – Dealing with malicious grievances

An important point to note is that if an employee raises a grievance maliciously then this can be dealt with as misconduct under your disciplinary policy. If an individual is using the grievance process as a conduit for bullying or harassment, this could be considered gross misconduct and may potentially result in dismissal. It is important to protect the integrity of the grievance process; it must be clear what the consequences may be for those who misuse the grievance process in any way.

This does come with a health warning. If you are going to treat the raising of a grievance as misconduct then you must be very confident that the complaint has been brought in bad faith. If the complainant is simply mistaken or misguided, then it would be inappropriate to deal with that person via the disciplinary route.

On a similar point, some individuals may raise frequent or repetitive grievances in relation to minor issues. In these circumstances you may be able to legitimately refuse to deal with the matter via the grievance process. It may be that work needs to be done to address a culture within your organisation whereby ‘tit for tat’ grievances are commonplace, taking up management time and resource which could be better spent dealing with legitimate complaints.

Pili Fernandez-Mahoney (pili.fernandez-mahoney@weightmans.com) is a Solicitor in the Employment, Pensions and Immigration Team at Weightmans LLP and is based in Manchester. If you need support with a difficult grievance or disciplinary issue please do not hesitate to contact Pili or speak to your usual Weightmans advisor.

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