No employee wants to encounter issues at work that merit raising a grievance. Nor should any employer want their working environment to create grievances for employees.
Grievances don’t just damage employee morale and productivity. They can also lead to legal issues for an employer. Even if management or senior members of a company aren’t directly responsible for grievances, they are legally responsible for their company’s employees.
Handling grievances at work is rarely simple. Every case will depend on its own specific set of circumstances. Some cases will be so serious that an informal route will not be suitable.
However, in other situations, an informal route can allow employers to deal with the complaint efficiently, effectively, and swiftly. It’s important to ask the employee from the outset how they would like to deal with their issues.
What is a grievance?
A grievance is an actual or supposed hardship or wrong which becomes the subject matter of a complaint.
In an employment sense, this most regularly pertains to working conditions or the treatment of a particular employee, who is making the complaint, by another.
Staff grievances refer to any complaint an employee may have that does not amount to bullying or harassment.
Grievance at work examples
Grievances can take many different forms. Employees can feel pressured by workloads or intimidated by many different workplace interactions. However, there are specific examples of grievances at work.
- An employee raises a complaint in relation to their salary
- Not consenting to changes to their terms and conditions
- Complaints against a manager or another employee
- Grievances against HR relating to processes or procedures
Employers and employees should know how long a grievance investigation should take. Employers should make an effort to adhere to any prescribed time limits set out in their grievance policy and procedures. The aim should always be to resolve complaints quickly and fairly.
For this reason, it is vital for both employees and employers to keep records of grievances.
Employers cannot refuse to hear a grievance. The only times an employer can refuse to hear grievances is when it originates from bad faith.
This means the employer believes the grievance contains elements of dishonesty. This applies to grievances against either employees or the employer.
If an employer refuses to hear a grievance at work and cannot prove this bad faith, they will be exposed to the risk of a Workplace Relations Commission claim.
This includes that the employer engaged in unfair conduct when considering a grievance. This can include a lack of an investigation.
If brought to an employment tribunal, the employer may be ordered to pay compensation to an aggrieved employee.
Grievance against HR and managers
Usually, line managers or management handles grievances brought by an employee. However, an employee can raise complaints with HR or an impartial person if the grievance relates to their manager.
In most cases, HR's role in grievance handling is to serve as a mediator. They are neutral between both parties involved in the grievance.
For grievances against managers or management-level employees, HR must handle the issues with employees directly.
If there are complaints against HR, employers should follow two options.
- A formal process without HR employees: this process doesn’t have HR employees as mediators. This is because in these cases, it is impossible for even HR management to be completely impartial.
- Making use of external assistance: external mediators for procedures guarantee impartial mediators.
Grievance process at work
The Industrial Relations Act 1990 Code of Practice on Grievance and Disciplinary Procedures (Declaration) Order 2000 states employers must apply appropriate practices when dealing with any grievance situation.
Employers must ensure that any grievance procedure adopted must be rational and fair. The process should comply with the guidelines set out in the WRC Code of Practice. This ensures the best HR practice.
The Code of Practice sets out that processes must adhere to the principles of natural justice, which are as follows:
- Fair examination: all complaints will be fairly examined and processed.
- The right to reply: outline the details of the complaint and ensure the employee has a right to respond to the allegations.
- Access to information: all parties to the complaint need to have access to these details and have the right to respond.
- Representation: the employee has the right to representation. This includes union representatives or other employees.
- Grievance procedure without prejudice: the process must have an impartial, open-minded decision-maker with no pre-judgement. For example, the investigator should not be someone who has witnessed some part of the complaint.
Regarding employment law, grievances require a full and fair procedure in line with the WRC Code of Practice. Employees should have access to information about grievance procedures or processes. The information should be presented in writing and written in language that is easily understood.
They should find this information in one or more of the following:
- A company handbook
- Any company human resources (HR) or personnel manuals
- Easily accessible HR intranet site
- Their employment contract
Once the company has received details of the grievance, they should consult with their employee handbook. After this, the employer should carry out the procedure in line with their own internal policies.
Informal grievance process
If an employee would like to deal with the issue informally, they should inform management of the details of the grievance.
Examples of such issues include an employee not liking the way another party asks them to watch how they speak to their colleague. An informal process would request that this employee apologises and would entail management handling this request for an apology.
The employee decides if an apology will suffice as a conclusion.
However, if the employee refuses to apologise, further steps need to follow. These steps include raising a formal grievance and following the steps in a formal process.
Formal grievance process
When following a formal procedure, the employer/management will meet with the aggrieved party and discuss their complaint.
The aggrieved party should provide details of their complaint in writing. An investigation process should follow to establish the facts.
During a formal process, an employee has the right to be represented by a colleague or trade union representative. Take minutes during any meetings and both parties should sign a copy to indicate their agreement.
Management will then decide on the appropriate action to follow. Management will then write these actions to the employee and inform them if the grievance has been upheld or not.
If they wish to, the employee has the right to appeal this decision.
If they decide to exercise this right, then the appeal will be held by another member of management. This management-level employee must have had no dealings in the process previously.
Result of grievance procedures
A decision and proposed resolution on the matter marks the end of the formal process.
When the investigation into a grievance has ended, the employer must adjourn the process to consider the information and facts.
After this, the employer must provide a decision regarding the validity of the grievance and any subsequent actions required. A meeting with the employee to discuss the outcome of the investigation should follow.
A decision should never occur during the hearing itself.
The employer must then confirm the decision and following actions in writing. The employee should also have the right to appeal the decision. They may do so to the next level of management who has not had any involvement in the original process.
Employees raising issues should never experience victimisation after raising a grievance. This is true even if the event of an appeal against a decision made.
Employees are protected against victimisation by of the Employment Equality Acts 1998 - 2015.
Constructive dismissal grievance
In the rare occasions that an appeal against a decision still does not satisfy an employee, this may lead to constructive dismissal.
This occurs when an employee resigns due to a grievance. This can include feeling unsatisfied by the results or actions of a formal procedure.
If the employee feels that they have no choice but to resign due to this, they can claim for constructive dismissal. The onus is on the employee to prove that they had no choice but to resign because the employer has breached the employment contract. A grievance-related constructive dismissal may be due to reasons such as:
- Grievances not investigated: this includes raising an issue that the employer refuses to investigate, as well as failing to take appropriate action afterwards.
- Discrimination: if the employee feels that they are regularly bullied or discriminated against.
- Unreasonable adjustments to working patterns: if the employee feels that the employer has made unreasonable changes to working patterns or their place of work without an agreement.
- Lack of pay: if the employee is not paid their salary or wages without good reason.
Constructive dismissals are difficult to prove in employment tribunals. However, an aggrieved employee will often be motivated to make this type of claim.
How to reduce employee grievances
Ensuring that any grievances are handled quickly and efficiently is vital to preventing employment tribunals and maintaining positive morale at work. However, it is obviously preferable to avoid them at work altogether.
Ways to do so include:
- Instilling respect in your culture: naturally, the greatest method of reducing grievances is fostering a working environment that encourages and respects all employees. Ensuring that all employees strive to treat each other with respect and have safe spaces to raise issues goes a long way.
- Private and efficient management: in the event of any budding grievances, be sure to try informal procedures. Create opportunities for any disagreements or issues to be resolved quickly and privately. Remember to never go into any disagreement with prejudice or bias, so try to avoid placing the blame squarely on one party.
- Understand what resolutions are desired: when sparks begin to fly and arguments occur, ensure that it is clear what outcome would make all parties involved happy. Having a goal to work towards makes reaching a resolution much easier.
However, even the best efforts to avoid grievances can’t always prevent them completely. This is where external experts can provide tremendous help.
Help and advice
Grievances can arise in any workplace. Employees can complain about their salary, any changes to their terms and conditions, or just complaints against other employees. Every grievance raised will require specific methods to resolve them.
Employers should handle complaints promptly and aim to prevent grievances entirely. Failure to do so can incur many negative consequences. These range from low productivity and morale to orders to pay compensation from the WRC.
If you have any questions in relation to grievances or grievance procedures, please contact our expert employment law advisors on the 24-Hour Advice Service on 0818 923 923