Law guide: Employment

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Dealing with grievances

Dealing with grievances

Raising a grievance

Where a grievance is serious or an employee has attempted to raise a problem informally without success, the employee should raise it formally with management in writing.

Where employees have difficulty expressing themselves because of language or other difficulties they may like to seek help from trade union or other employee representatives or from colleagues.

When stating their grievance, employees should stick to the facts and avoid language that may be considered insulting or abusive.

Where the grievance is against the line manager the employee may approach another manager or raise the issue with their HR department if there is one. It is helpful if the grievance procedure sets out who the individual should approach in these circumstances.

In small firms run by an owner/manager there will be no alternative manager to raise a grievance with. It is in the interests of such employers to make it clear that they will treat all grievances fairly and objectively even if the grievance is about something they have said or done.

Holding a grievance meeting

What is a grievance meeting?

In general terms, a grievance meeting deals with any grievance raised by an employee. Workers have a statutory right to be accompanied by a work colleague or trade union representative at a grievance meeting that deals with a complaint about a duty owed by the employer to the worker. So this would apply where the complaint is, for example, that the employer is not honouring the worker's contract, or is in breach of legislation.

Preparing for the meeting

Managers should:

  • Arrange a meeting without unreasonable delay, ideally within 5 working days after details of a grievance are received, in private where there will not be any interruptions
  • Consider arranging for someone who is not involved in the case to take a note of the meeting and to act as a witness to what was said
  • Find out before the meeting whether similar grievances have been raised before, how they have been resolved, and any follow-up action that has been necessary. This allows consistency of treatment
  • Consider arranging for an interpreter or allowing a companion who is not a work colleague or trade union representative where the employee has difficulty speaking English
  • Consider whether any reasonable adjustments are necessary for a person who is disabled and/or their companion
  • Consider whether to offer independent mediation.

Conduct of the meeting

Managers should:

  • Remember that a grievance hearing is not the same as a disciplinary hearing, and is an occasion when discussion and dialogue may lead to an amicable solution
  • Make introductions as necessary
  • Invite the employee to re-state their grievance and how they would like to see it resolved
  • Put care and thought into resolving grievances. They are not normally issues calling for snap decisions, and the employee may have been holding the grievance for a long time. Make allowances for any reasonable 'letting off steam' if the employee is under stress
  • Consider adjourning the meeting if it is necessary to investigate any new facts which arise
  • Sum up the main points
  • Tell the employee when they might reasonably expect a response if one cannot be made at the time, bearing in mind the time limits, if any, set out in the business's procedure

Be calm, fair and follow the procedure

In smaller businesses, grievances can sometimes be taken as personal criticism – employers should be careful to hear any grievance in a calm and objective manner, being as fair to the employee as possible in the resolution of the problem. Following a grievance procedure can make this easier.

Grievances about fellow employees

These can be made easier by following the grievance procedure. An employee may be the cause of grievances among their co-employees – perhaps on grounds of personal hygiene, attitude, or capability for the job.

Employers must deal with these cases carefully and should generally start by talking privately to the individual about the concerns of fellow employees. This may resolve the grievance. Alternatively, if those involved are willing, an independent mediator may be able to help. Care needs to be taken that any discussion with someone being complained about does not turn into a meeting at which they would be entitled to be accompanied.

Allow the employee to be accompanied at the grievance meeting

Workers have a statutory right to be accompanied by a companion at a grievance meeting which deals with a complaint about a duty owed by the employer to the worker. So this would apply where the complaint is, for example, that the employer is not honouring the worker's contract, or is in breach of legislation.

The chosen companion may be a fellow worker a trade union representative or an official employed by a trade union. A trade union representative who is not an employed official must have been certified by their union as being competent to accompany a worker.

To exercise the right to be accompanied, a worker must first make a reasonable request. What is reasonable will depend on the circumstances of each individual case.

The companion should be allowed to address the hearing to put and sum up the worker's case, respond on behalf of the worker to any views expressed at the meeting and confer with the worker during the hearing. The companion does not, however, have the right to answer questions on the workers behalf, address the hearing if the worker does not wish it or prevent the employer from explaining their case.

For the purposes of this right, a grievance hearing is a meeting at which an employer deals with a complaint about a duty owed by them to a worker, whether the duty arises from statute or common law (for example, contractual commitments).

For instance, an individual's request for a pay rise is unlikely to fall within the definition, unless a right to an increase is specifically provided for in the contract or the request raises an issue about equal pay. Equally, most employers will be under no legal duty to provide their workers with car parking facilities, and a grievance about such facilities would carry no right to be accompanied at a hearing by a companion. However, if a worker were disabled and needed a car to get to and from work, they probably would be entitled to a companion at a grievance hearing, as an issue might arise as to whether the employer was meeting its obligations under the Equality Act 2010 (or in Northern Ireland, under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995).

It is generally good practice, however, to allow workers to be accompanied at a formal grievance meeting even when the statutory right does not apply.

Decide on appropriate action

It is generally good practice to adjourn a meeting before a decision is taken about how to deal with an employee's grievance. This allows time for reflection and proper consideration. It also allows for any further checking of any matters raised.

Set out clearly in writing any action that is to be taken and the employee's right of appeal. Where an employee's grievance is not upheld, make sure the reasons are carefully explained.

Bear in mind that actions taken to resolve a grievance may have an impact on other individuals, who may also feel aggrieved.

If the grievance highlights any issues concerning policies, procedures or conduct (even if not sufficiently serious to merit separate disciplinary procedures) they should be addressed as soon as possible.

Ensure any action taken is monitored and reviewed, as appropriate, so that it deals effectively with the issues.

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