6-STEP GUIDE | How to expertly handle workplace grievances

When an employee raises a grievance against a colleague, it’s in an employer’s best interest to resolve the issue quickly and efficiently.

After all, minimising disruption to your workforce is key to achieving your long-term goals and maintaining long-term success. Understanding how to adeptly navigate the grievance procedure is crucial to maintaining positive working relationships, preventing small issues from escalating into bigger problems, and avoiding Employment Tribunal claims.

If you’re facing a grievance from an employee relating to their role, their workplace or another member of staff, it’s vital to ensure that you follow a fair procedure in order to avoid legal pitfalls. In this article, we explain how to skillfully handle a grievance procedure without leaving yourself exposed to legal risk.

Causes of employee grievance

Grievances occur when an employee is dissatisfied with some element of his or her employment. In this sense, the scope of what may prompt a grievance is broad; however, complaints are commonly related to alleged bullying, harassment, discrimination or unfair treatment, relationships with colleagues or management, remuneration, health and safety, changes in the workplace, or an employee’s terms and conditions of employment.

Generally speaking, grievances occur when there is a gap between expectation and reality. Employers are expected to provide staff with a safe working environment, a realistic job description, fair compensation for the work they do, and respect, amongst other things, and grievances typically stem from a feeling that the company and/or its management aren’t fulfilling these expectations in some way.

How to handle workplace grievances in 6 steps

1. Try to resolve the issue informally

If an employee is unhappy about some aspect of their employment, they should raise their concern, problem or complaint with their line manager, who should listen to the employee and attempt to resolve the grievance through informal means in the first instance. In many cases, issues can be resolved quickly and efficiently by talking through the problem, without having to resort to formal procedures.

What if the grievance is directly concerned with the line manager’s comments or actions?

In these situations, the employee should make their grievance to another appropriate person, such as another senior manager, who can arrange for somebody who is not directly involved to deal with the grievance. Your Employee Handbook should contain a Grievance Policy which explains how staff should go about raising a grievance, who they should approach in different scenarios, and your process for handling complaints.

2. If the issue can't be dealt with informally...

If informal means are inappropriate or ineffective, the employee should submit a written complaint, which will trigger a formal procedure. They should provide as much information as they can about their grievance so that it can be investigated thoroughly.

Failing to deal with a grievance, either properly or at all, is not claim in and of itself. However, the way a grievance is dealt with could give rise to another sort of claim, such as a discrimination claim, if, for example, a disabled employee claims that their grievance was ignored whilst a similar grievance from a non-disabled employee was dealt with properly.

3. Arrange a grievance hearing

At this stage, once a formal complaint has been submitted, you should arrange to meet with the complainant to discuss the grievance in more detail. This should be done as quickly as possible, without any unreasonable delay, in a private setting where there will be no interruptions.

A grievance hearing is an opportunity to put flesh on the bones of the complaint or, in cases where a grievance is very long, try and narrow down the issues into something more manageable. When preparing the meeting, you should consider:

  • Whether any reasonable adjustments are necessary (if the employee has a mental or physical disability);
  • Whether you will need to arrange an interpreter (in cases where English is not the employee’s first language);
  • Organising somebody with no involvement in the case to take notes; and
  • How similar grievances have been dealt with in the past (this will help ensure that grievances are dealt in a fair and consistent way).

You should then write to the employee to invite them to the grievance hearing and inform them of their right to be accompanied by a fellow colleague or a trade union representative.

The meeting should be carried out by a manager who has no involvement whatsoever in the case. If the grievance concerns the line manager, consider who else could hear the complaint.

4. Hold the meeting and carry out an investigation

At the meeting, the employee should be given the opportunity to fully explain their grievance and how they wish the matter to be resolved.

Following an open discussion of the issue, the manager chairing the meeting will need to consider whether the matter can be resolved immediately or whether the hearing should be adjourned so that an investigation can be carried out to establish all the relevant facts.

If further investigation is necessary, steps may include talking to all parties involved, interviewing witnesses, acquiring documents and gathering evidence. If the investigation is particularly complex or lengthy, you may wish to hold a second meeting with the employee so that they can comment on the evidence. However, it is rare that this will be necessary.

5. Decide what action to take

Once you have completed the grievance investigation, you will usually be in a position to make a decision on the grievance. It may be necessary to speak to the complainant again to clarify an issue before making your decision; however, that is the exception rather than the norm.

The action you decide to take will depend on the nature of the grievance and the outcome of your investigation. If the grievance is upheld, the next step may be to amend the employee’s employment terms, move them to another department or team, or take disciplinary action against the perpetrator of the misconduct.

Your decision on the grievance must be communicated to the complainant in writing, giving as much detail as is reasonably possible to support your conclusions. The employee then has the right to appeal.

What if an employee raises a grievance while the subject of a disciplinary process themselves?

In this case, if the grievance they raise is related to the disciplinary action being taken against them, it may be appropriate for the disciplinary process to be temporarily suspended whilst the grievance is concluded. Whether this is necessary will depend on the content of the grievance and the disciplinary process; other options may include dealing with both concurrently or even dealing with some of the issues at the disciplinary hearing, when the issues raised as a grievance will effectively form part of the employee’s disciplinary defence.

6. Manage the appeal

If the employee decides to appeal the decision, you will need to arrange an appeal hearing. This should be conducted by an appropriate person in the senior management team, ideally somebody who has not been previously involved in the case. As with the initial grievance meeting(s), the employee has the right to be accompanied.

The purpose of the appeal meeting is to explore the employee’s grounds of appeal and consider each in turn. You may be required to investigate some additional points following the appeal if there are elements you cannot confirm or questions you cannot answer based on the evidence already gathered.

Once the appeals process is complete, the decision of the appeal must be confirmed in writing to the employee. The outcome of any appeal will be final.

3 top tips for dealing with grievances appropriately

  • Keep detailed records. Make sure to document the nature of the grievance, the action taken (including minutes of meetings and evidence gathered), and the outcome. This will help you to demonstrate that you have conducted a robust and fair investigation and will help to defend any subsequent claims.
  • Avoid making snap decisions. Even if the solution appears obvious, there may be legal repercussions to consider, so it’s important to remain impartial and see the process through, leaving your personal feelings and judgements aside.
  • Make sure your policies are relevant, clear and up to date. This is key to keeping things on track. Following a defined process will ensure that proceedings are fair, everyone is aware of how the process works, and matters are dealt with in a timely and sensitive manner. Managers should be fully trained on these procedures to ensure they are executed correctly, and policies should be updated in line with your business structure and changes in the law.

A grievance may or may not lead into a disciplinary. A grievance is a fact-finding exercise, and if sufficient information is found to support the claims, the case may escalate to disciplinary action. For advice on this stage, read our six-step guide to disciplinary.

Experienced and independent support

Employee grievances may or may not be justified. Either way, it’s important that they are thoroughly investigated and dealt with in a fair and strategic manner. Left unchecked, complaints can intensify, leading to large disputes within the company, decreased motivation amongst staff and costly Tribunal claims.

If you would like professional support with any aspect of the grievance or disciplinary process, Ellis Whittam’s qualified Employment Law specialists can provide pragmatic advice and guidance to help you minimise legal risk and achieve the best possible outcome, quickly.

If you require on-site assistance, our expert HR Consultancy team can handle all investigations and hearings, including disciplinaries, grievances and appeals. We can conduct the meetings for you or, if you prefer, attend them with you to offer practical advice and support.

For more information, call 0345 226 8393.