Grievance (Premium)

How to deal with a grievance 

The Contractual Status of Grievance Procedures

A grievance procedure does not need to form part of an employment contract and it is recommended that you do not do so but have it in a separate document. This means that an employee may not be able to claim breach of contract if you fail to follow it, whereas if it is incorporated into the contract it will be open to them to claim breach of contract.

The Grievance Procedure

You must provide each of your employees with a written grievance procedure or easy access to a copy. The minimum procedure should follow the good practice principles set out in the ACAS code of practice on disciplinary and grievance procedures. However, the minimum procedure may be insufficient to be deemed a fair procedure by a tribunal.

If you unreasonably fail to follow the code and the issue ends up at an employment tribunal, the tribunal could increase the employee’s compensation by up to 25 per cent.

The content of a grievance procedure

The exact nature of your procedure will depend on the size and structure of your organisation. However, the key principles are that it should:

  • Be easy to follow.
  • Aim to settle grievances fairly and quickly.
  • State how and with whom to raise the grievance in the first place.
  • Indicate that you will try to resolve most grievances informally, eg by discussions with the employee’s immediate manager.
  • State how and with whom to raise the grievance in the first place.
  • Identify an alternative person with whom a grievance should be raised if the usual person is the subject of the grievance. For example, if the line manager is the person with whom grievances should be first raised but they are the subject of the grievance, the procedure should name someone else, eg the line manager’s manager.
  • Set out to whom the employee should appeal if they are not satisfied with the outcome of the initial grievance hearing –
  • State that, if possible, a manager previously not involved in the matter will hear the appeal.
  • Give time limits for each stage, particularly for lodging and hearing the appeal.
  • Mention that the employee has the right to be accompanied by a colleague or union representative at any meeting.
  • Outline what happens if a grievance is raised during a disciplinary procedure

You should develop specific procedures for very sensitive claims involving unfair treatment, eg discrimination, bullying or harassment.

Dealing with a Grievance step by step

Informal Resolution

Employee concerns are best dealt with informally where possible and before views have become fixed. Cultivating a culture where employees feel they can raise concerns with their manager can enable issues to be resolved quickly before they escalate. So often a grievance is based on a misconception.

Formal Grievances

Where an employee is not satisfied with a response or they feel the matter is too serious to be dealt with informally they may raise a formal grievance. This should be dealt with as quickly as possible by a manager who is not the subject of the grievance. Sometimes, where serious complaints have been raised, it is helpful to have this investigated by an independent consultant who as no pre-conceptions of the people involved or think about using our consultancy service.

Preparing for a Grievance Hearing

Before you hold a grievance hearing:

  • Read through your grievance procedure so that you apply it correctly. In particular, check who is an appropriate companion under the rules; the statutory position is a work colleague or a trade union representative.
  • Make sure you understand the role of the companion which is to assist in presenting the grievance and to support the employee.
  • Make sure you have carefully read the employees grievance letter and noted areas for further clarification, and you identified all the relevant facts and documents available for the hearing.
  • If an investigation is necessary, eg where the employee is accusing a colleague of sexual harassment or bullying, decide if you will do this before or after any grievance meeting with the complainant. See advice on conducting the investigation below
  • Arrange for someone to take notes if possible but if the subject matter is very sensitive you may wish to take your own notes.
  • Arrange a suitable time, date and venue for the hearing and confirm in writing. (Letters)
  • Give the employee plenty of notice of the meeting so they can prepare their case and consult any representatives. Remind them that they have the right to be accompanied at the hearing by a colleague or trade union official, and the right to postpone if their representative is unavailable.
  • Consider any special arrangements you need to make eg if they have a disability or are off work sick with a stress related illness. See dealing with delays and problems below
  • For organisations whose procedures permit the cross examination of witnesses
    • Inform any manager and witnesses who may need to attend.
    • Obtain witness statements from any witnesses who will be unable to attend the hearing and share them with the employee.

How to Conduct a Grievance Hearing

To have any hope of resolving a grievance it is vital that you treat the employee with respect and deal with the complaint sensitively and in the strictest confidence, particularly where it concerns other employees.

The key principles are:

  • Remember a grievance meeting is not a disciplinary meeting, don’t confuse the procedures. A grievance meeting is the employee’s meeting, not management’s. See below for the differences in approach and dealing with your feelings and reactions as well as the employees.
  • Ensure that it’s private and won’t be interrupted
  • Introduce everyone and explain why they are present
  • Explain the reason for the hearing which is to make sure you fully understand the employee’s grievance.
  • Explain how it will be conducted; the employee can tell you what their concern is; you may ask questions to clarify what is being said; you may need to carry out some investigation after the meeting and it may be necessary to meet again.
  • Suggest to the employee that you propose to follow their grievance letter and ask them to expand on the points in it but they may add anything new that they wish to.
  • If they want to just tell you the story you should allow them to but check the grievance letter at the end to make sure all the relevant points have been covered.
  • Listen carefully to the person’s explanation of the problem – consider whether there is another issue which might be the root cause of the grievance for guidance on effective listening skills see (Recruitment)
  • Listen to any conflicting points of view where witnesses are cross examined and probe for information – see guidance for probing skills-(Recruitment)
  • Check with the employee what their desired resolution or outcome is. This is vital in resolving a grievance as sometime old grievances are brought up for which there is no possible resolution now eg against a manager who has left the company.
  • Permit adjournments if necessary
  • Weigh up all the evidence to see whether there is an issue you need to address or investigate further.
  • Summarise the main points made.

Controlling the Meeting

The idea is to resolve the problem not to defend management’s position at all costs. There is usually a basis for the employee’s concern and it is rare that management are completely right and their behaviour is totally exemplary all the time. Even where the employee is wrong, they have their perception and they are entitled to have that acknowledged. If this is not acknowledged the meeting is likely to be defensive at best and possibly confrontational.

Before Making the Decision

Once the hearing is over decide:

  • What action to take next. Do you need to investigate issues raised; do these involve interviewing other employees?
  • How you will deal with allegations against a very senior manager or Director. You will need to balance fairness to the person complaining without compromising the business, confidentiality or other employees?
  • How far do you extend the investigation in the interest of fairness whilst maintaining the contract term of trust and confidence of the accused person when allegations are serious such as bullying, discrimination or harassment?
  • Whether you will release any witness statements to the person raising the grievance. There is no legal obligation to do so and sometimes it can sour working relationships but if possible it is good practice to do so.
  • Whether to meet with the person raising the grievance again.
  • Consider when to draw the line to prevent facilitating an argument by proxy. There is no point entering into he said/ she said / no I didn’t

The Decision

  • Inform all concerned parties – in writing – of your decision and the appeal process. What should be included?
  • Advise the employee of their right of appeal
  • Consider what action if any needs to be taken with regard to policies and procedures, or other employees. (Letters)

Dealing with Delays and Problems

If the employee is genuinely unable to attend the grievance hearing, eg because they are ill, or they are away on business, offer them a reasonable date and time as an alternative. If you cannot make the rearranged hearing, you must offer the employee a reasonable alternative date and time. If the employee’s companion cannot make the rearranged hearing, the employee should propose another date and time no more than five working days after the day proposed by you.

Long-term absence

An employee may become anxious and stressed in the run-up to a grievance hearing, particularly if in the meantime they have to face the person at work who is the cause of their grievance. This can lead in some cases to them being absent for weeks or even months due to stress-related illness.

If this situation arises, you can ask the employee if they feel up to a meeting. If the employee says they cannot attend you can discuss alternative options. If the employee is still unwilling or unable to attend, you can ask the employee’s GP and/or an occupational health specialist for a medical report provided you have obtained the employee’s written agreement under the Access to Medical Reports Act before doing so. See (absence) for advice on handling employees absent with long term illness.

If the employee fails to attend the rearranged hearing, this stage of the procedure is technically complete and you could make your decision based on the information you have, which may be very limited. However this can be difficult to enforce if the employee is off work with a stress related illness and could result in a finding of unfairness if the employee resigns and claims constructive dismissal. See guidance for managers LINK TO GUIDANCE for where is a suitable location, how many postponements is reasonable, what to do if the employee is persistently unavailable.

If a decision is made in the absence of the employee you will still have need to tell the employee in writing of the decision and that they have the right to appeal.

Appeals against grievance decisions

An employee has the right to appeal against your decision following the grievance hearing. You must notify them of this right when you write to give them your decision. Give them a deadline to notify you of their intention to appeal, eg within ten working days or whatever your procedure specifies.

If the employee chooses to appeal, you must try to hold the appeal hearing without unnecessary delay.

Preparing for an appeal hearing

Before you hold an appeal hearing:

  • Read through your grievance procedure to ensure that you are applying it correctly.
  • Make sure you have all relevant facts and documents, especially if you have come across new evidence since the first hearing.
  • Arrange for someone to take notes.
  • Arrange a suitable time, date and venue for the hearing.
  • Inform the employee in plenty of time so they can prepare their case and consult any representatives. Remind them that they have the right to be accompanied at the hearing by a colleague or trade union official.

For organisations whose procedures permit the cross examination of witnesses

  • Inform any manager and witnesses who may need to attend.
  • Obtain witness statements from any witnesses who will be unable to attend the hearing and share them with the employee.

Holding an appeal hearing

The principles for holding an appeal hearing are generally the same as for the initial grievance hearing but the employee is responsible for setting out their reasons for their appeal.

Employees may not be clear so an appeal manager should try to understand the reasoning behind the appeal and consider any new evidence since the earlier decision which may be put forward at the appeal.

Ideally the person hearing the appeal shouldn’t be the same person that heard the initial hearing, eg a more senior manager who has not been involved with the grievance process at all. However, where the person hearing the appeal is the same person who heard the first hearing, they should act impartially and make sure they review the original decision carefully.

You should write to the employee with your decision and the reason(s) for it as soon as possible after the hearing. Make it clear, if this is the case, that the decision is final. (Letters)

Dealing with delays

Delays should be treated in the same way as for the grievance hearing.

If the employee is genuinely unable to attend the grievance hearing, eg because they are ill, or they are away on business, you should offer them a reasonable date and time as an alternative. If you cannot make the rearranged hearing, you must offer the employee a reasonable alternative date and time. If the employee’s companion cannot make the rearranged hearing, the employee should propose another date and time no more than five working days after the day proposed by you.

It is important that you notify the employee as soon as possible of any delays to the appeal process. If you fail to do so, an employment tribunal could increase any compensation awarded against you.

If the employee fails to attend the rearranged hearing, this stage of the procedure is complete and you can make your decision based on their written appeal. However, if the employee is absent from work due to long term ill health it would be safer and good practice to make further attempts to hold the appeal hearing.

You should advise the employee of the decision in writing as soon as possible.