Dealing with employee grievances can be one of the most challenging issues in the workplace. There are a few reasons for this.
Firstly, for most employees lodging a grievance is the last resort. Most employees will have attempted to solve their problems through other channels. They will only be lodging a grievance because this approach has failed. If their attempts to resolve the problem informally have failed, employees can be quite disgruntled by the time they lodge their grievance. This can mean that emotions are running high during the process.
Not An Easy Fix
Secondly, the fact that the issue requires a formal grievance demonstrates that, whatever the problem is, it is not easy to fix or is extremely serious. It can be very difficult to reach a satisfactory outcome in a grievance process. There are times when a grievance leads to a disciplinary against another employee. The situation can get very complicated very quickly.
Not Really a Grievance
Finally, some employees use the grievance process to raise matters that aren’t really grievances. We’ve seen employees use the grievance process to raise concerns about business decisions that don’t have any direct impact on them but with which they disagree.
In this blog post, we’re going to look at the common mistakes when managing grievances and give some tips on how to avoid them.
Time to read our post: 5 minutes
The topics covered in this post are:
Managing employee grievances can be challenging and, if errors are made, can make the situation worse rather than better, and potentially end up in an employment tribunal through unintended consequences of the best of intentions.
If ever in doubt, seek support from an HR professional (preferably us!).
Mistake 1: Allowing a Situation to Escalate
Allowing a situation to escalate is a mistake that employers can make BEFORE a grievance is raised but it’s definitely worth a mention.
There are some situations that you simply can’t predict. Someone making a racist or sexist comment is likely to go immediately to a formal grievance. Besides training your employees properly on diversity, equality, and inclusion, you can do little to prevent this.
However, there are often signs that an employee is becoming dissatisfied in the workplace and ignoring these is never wise.
- You can see performance start to dip.
- You can see a change in attitude or behaviour.
- You can see someone start to withdraw from colleagues.
Now, seeing these things doesn’t mean you should conclude that something is wrong at work. However, this indicates a problem, and you need to initiate a conversation.
How to avoid a situation escalating…
To avoid issues escalating, arrange a one-to-one with the employee. In the meeting, ask open questions to see if you can get to the bottom of what may be happening. If they do highlight a problem in the workplace, speak with them to understand the problem fully. Next, think about how to tackle the issue.
Keeping open communication with your employees and having early conversations won’t only prevent grievances but is likely to contribute to lower absence and employee turnover.
Mistake 2: Not Recognising a Grievance as a Grievance
There are times when it is obvious that someone is submitting a grievance as they will mark it as such. There are other times, however, when it is not so clear. You may receive an email that does not explicitly state “I would like to raise a grievance” but it’s clearly from an unhappy employee. Knowing what to do in this situation can help you to avoid problems.
Clearly, you don’t want to treat every email you receive where someone says they are unhappy about something as a grievance. Doing so would mean that you spend all day, every day in grievance hearings. However, you do need to recognise when following a formal approach is the right thing to do or encourage.
Recognising a grievance when it is raised…
Firstly, any email that mentions harassment or discrimination will need to be addressed through a formal process. If you receive an email that mentions these topics, then you should respond confirming that you are going to treat the email as a formal grievance. You should then go ahead and start the grievance process.
Another thing to look out for is any issue that seems to be escalating or not resolving despite your best efforts. If you’re receiving a third or fourth email from the same employee about the same topic, this would be a good opportunity to tell the employee that they have the right to raise a grievance and you should then send them your grievance policy.
If you ever receive an email with an employee complaint and you are unsure whether the employee is raising a grievance or not, ask the question. It can be tempting to not do this as you think you will avoid needing to go through the full grievance process but a grievance process is far simpler and less costly than an employment tribunal!
Mistake 3: Trying to Resolve a Grievance Without Investigation
Another common mistake when managing a grievance is to not investigate. Undertaking an investigation is a key step in a grievance process.
The timing of an investigation is a key difference between a disciplinary and grievance process. In a disciplinary process, you will always conduct the investigation first. You then provide any evidence to the employee and then conduct the hearing.
In a grievance process, you will conduct the hearing first and then conduct the relevant investigation. The reason for this is that you can explore the issues with the employee during the hearing. From there, you will be able to ascertain what investigation is necessary.
The mistake is thinking that you can listen to the employee and then try to resolve the issue without investigating. You should remember that what you’re hearing from the employee is one side of the story. You will always need to get the other side.
How to ensure you’re doing a proper investigation…
It is important to get evidence from an appropriate range of sources whilst investigating a grievance. This could be through conversations with colleagues, managers, witnesses. It may involve undertaking a desktop investigation to confirm the validity and accuracy of information the employee has provided.
Do make sure that you take the time to do an appropriate investigation before trying to resolve the issue. This may slow the process, but it does mean that you’ll be moving forward armed with as much information as possible. This may make it easier to resolve the issue.
Mistake 4: Taking Too Long to Investigate a Grievance
Although we’ve listed this as mistake 4, taking too long to investigate a grievance is probably the most common mistake when managing grievances that we see.
You’re busy. A long email arrives from a clearly unhappy employee. It’s many, many words and it seems to be quite complicated. You don’t have time to read it properly today, so you’ll look tomorrow…..and then tomorrow…..and then tomorrow.
Whilst the employee’s grievance may not be the most important thing on your to do list, it will almost certainly be the most important thing on your employee’s mind. The longer you leave it to respond, the more frustrated and angry they will become. This will make it far harder to guide them constructively through the process.
Get the grievance investigation going…
If you receive a grievance, acknowledge it as soon as you possibly can. At the same time, manage expectations as to when they will likely hear from you again. The Acas guideline is that a grievance is heard within 5 days of the grievance being submitted.
Taking swift action is always going to be the better option when dealing with a grievance.
Mistake 5: Not Seeking Clarity on What the Grievance Is About
Grievances can be very long and there are times when you get to the end and still feel that you don’t understand what the employee is unhappy about.
This can be due to language barriers, written communication not being great, or oftentimes lots of frustration tumbling out onto the page without a clear structure. A common mistake when managing grievance is to not seek clarity on what the issues are.
Get clarity on the grievance…
Don’t be afraid to seek clarity from the employee. You can try to do this ahead of the hearing but, if written communication is an issue, then that’s unlikely to be successful. Instead, you can use the hearing as the way to seek clarification.
If you’re uncertain on what the issues are then you can open the meeting with something like:
“Thank you for taking the time to write your grievance down for me. I want to make sure that I have fully understood the issue. I think you are unhappy about the following key things (list x, y, z). Is that correct?”
Or, if you really are at a loss:
“Thank you for taking the time to write your grievance down for me. Before we start discussing the issues, it would be useful for you to summarise the key things that you are unhappy about in a few sentences.”
You are responsible for hearing, investigating and resolving the grievance. You can only do that if you fully understand the issues.