Despite best attempts to nurture a happy and well-treated workforce, there can be instances where an employee encounters an issue which needs to be addressed. To make sure employees have the best chance of receiving a satisfactory outcome, improve company moral, and avoid potential tribunals, employers must establish a strong and clear grievance procedure.
A grievance is a workplace or company related issue formally raised by an employee. Concerns, complaints and problems of many form, which are related to or have occurred in the workplace or company, can become grievances.
A grievance procedure is an established process through which an employer, employee, and relevant company personnel attempt to resolve the grievance. It is usually formalised as a written, organisational policy.
Although there is no prescribed legal process for managing grievances that has to be followed by the employer or employee, failure to handle adequately and deal with grievances via a company grievance procedure can leave employers at risk of employment tribunal claims. It is therefore essential that businesses are aware of their duties and responsibilities regarding employee grievances.
To ensure you create and implement a successful grievance procedure it is best to seek legal advice.
All businesses must have a clearly set out and thorough procedure through which employees can file any grievances which have occurred in connection to the workplace.
Although employees are expected to try and resolve some issues, particularly minor issues, informally or through their manager, an official grievance procedure must be in place for more serious concerns or any which cannot otherwise be resolved. Examples of legitimate work grievances include but are not limited to:
- Personal discrimination against an employee on the bases of their race, gender, age, disability, sexuality or any other protected personal characteristic. This can include failure to pay an employee equally, failure to promote on the grounds of a protected characteristic, workplace harassment etc
- The employer changing the terms and conditions of an employees’ contract without their agreement
- Workplace bullying and harassment in general
- Issues in the workplace, such as health and safety concerns, which the employer fails or refuses to resolve
There are certain principles which the employer and employee should acknowledge, set out by the Acas code of practice. Although the code itself is not legally binding, it does provide the framework for managing grievances.
In cases where the employee remains unsatisfied with the result or feels the employer is in breach of their rights, the employee may take the case to an employment tribunal. Should the employment tribunal determine that the Acas Code of Practice has not been followed, they have the power to either increase or reduce the financial remunerations by up to 25%.
Employers must address all formal grievances submitted by employees in a timely matter, allow the employee or employees concerned to submit evidence and receive support, inform them of decisions related to the grievance, and allow the employee to appeal the decision.
The grievance procedure process
Establishing a successful grievance procedure starts by providing all employee with a guidebook, pamphlet, or some form of written information on how to submit a grievance when they join the company. This must at the very least contain the name and address of the individual within the company whom employees should contact if they have a grievance. Business owners may take it upon themselves to oversee grievances until they have been resolved or may appoint a member of HR or senior management to manage the process.
It is generally expected of employers to go beyond this and clearly lay out, in writing, a step by step grievance procedure. This should be provided to employees either via an employee handbook, a Human Resources (HR) or personnel manual, through a HR intranet site, or within their employment contract.
Employees should try to sort out minor issues informally, either by talking to other employees involved or asking their manager to help resolve the issue.
If the issue cannot be solved informally through the aggrieved employee and their manager, employees must write to their employer or the company representative chosen to deal with grievances.
The organisation’s grievance policy / handbook should detail what the employee is required to include in the written notification, such as the name of the employees involved, the date of the letter, and what the employee hopes the employer will do to resolve the grievance.
Upon receipt of the letter, the individual responsible for managing grievances, whether the employer, senior management, or senior HR representative, is expected to arrange a meeting in a timely fashion with the employee at a convenient time and place for all parties. Whoever is managing the meeting on behalf of the employer should not be directly implicated, affected, or related to the grievance itself.
At the meeting – ‘grievance hearing’ – employees have a statutory right to take a companion to the meeting. However, if they want to do so they must request to do so in advance of the meeting. The employee can be accompanied by a colleague, a trade union official or a properly certified lay trade union official.
Companions are entitled to support the employee in a number of ways. The companion and aggrieved employee are entitled to communicate during the grievance hearing, and the companion has the authority to summarise or even present the aggrieved employees’ case. However, the companion is not permitted to respond to questions directed at the aggrieved employee. There are protections in place to prevent unfair dismissal or discrimination against individuals who accompany employees to grievance meetings.
The employer has the responsibility and right to determine how the meeting is run and, to an extent, how best to manage the meeting will vary depending on the nature of the grievance. Usually, the employer will go over the issue or issues which have been raised, with the employee able to comment on the overview and make points. Although flexibility with the structure of grievance hearings is encouraged, each meeting must comply with the Acas code.
The main aim of the meeting should be establishing the facts of the grievance and surrounding circumstances, then try to find a resolution to the problem.
Depending on how the meeting goes, it may be that further investigation into the cause and effect of the grievance is required. If so, employers can pause the meeting and re-arrange to continue it at a later date.
Post the conclusion of the meeting, the employer must provide the employee with decisions made regarding the grievance in writing. Where appropriate, the letter to the employee should include what actions the employer intends to undertake to help resolve the grievance. Writing to the employee should happen as soon as possible, as delays in communicating with the employee could lead to further disputes or count against the employer if communication between parties breaks down.
In cases where the employee is unsatisfied with the decision made by the employer regarding their grievance, or feels the process was unfair or flawed, they can appeal the result.
In order to appeal, employees must submit a written appeal request within reasonable time of the original grievance decision. Employers must give the employees “reasonable time” to appeal their decision. However, how long employees have to make the decision will vary from business to business and is something employers should put in all grievance procedure employee information to avoid complications over late appeals.
Written appeals should clearly state why the employee is appealing the employer’s decision and what it is they do not agree with.
Employers must then arrange a further meeting to discuss the appeal. Ideally, appeals should be managed by a more senior part of management, or at least a different manager of equal seniority to the first. This is to ensure fair treatment of the employees’ case. If business owners have handled the grievance from the start, they should seek for a high-level manager or impartial legal advisor to sit in or manage the appeal.
Appeals are organised in a similar way to initial grievance meetings, with the same rights to companions. Employers also have the responsibility to inform the employee of the appeal decision in writing within a reasonable time period.
Occasionally, despite best attempts to resolve a grievance, employees will remain unsatisfied post appeal and may take the employer to an Employment Tribunal. Employers who have failed to follow their own grievance procedure or who’s procedure does not comply with the Acas Code are most likely to see negative outcomes from the Tribunal. Employment Tribunals should always be considered a last resort by both parties.
It is important to keep records of all related communication, evidence, meetings and documents relating to each grievance in case the employee ends up making a claim to an Employment Tribunal.
Legal advice to support through the grievance procedure
If followed correctly and made clear to all members of the company, grievance procedures can be relatively simple and effective in resolving staff grievances quickly and to everyone’s acceptance.
However, there are times when even perfectly executed grievance procedures cannot resolve an issue and cases are taken to tribunal. In these instances, evidence that employers have in place a thorough grievance procedure, and followed it correctly, is the best way to avoid negative outcomes.
Although the basic premise of grievance procedures is simple, the more thorough and detailed your businesses grievance procedure policy the more likely you are to successfully resolve issues. It is therefore best to seek legal advice both when putting together a grievance procedure, and when dealing with any subsequent grievances.