The Aggrieved

Gary Cookson offers top tips on dealing with grievances from employees. Having both raised and dealt with grievances, he shares his understanding of best practice and suggests suitable ways to manage emotionally-charged situations effectively. 

A grievance is any concern or complaint raised by an employee about something connected with their employment. Any employee has the right to raise one. Employers must have a written procedure that sets out how they will be dealt with, and this should follow the ACAS Code of Practice on such matters. In following this code, employers can extend the right to raise grievances to workers, but they don’t have to. 

In essence, a grievance is an employee notifying you that something is going – or has gone – wrong in the employment relationship, and asking you to have a look at this and try to put things right. 

People raise them for all sorts of reasons. The vast majority are genuine concerns about the employment relationship and a desire to see this rectified. A very small number are without foundation, but even then, it’s important to deal with them properly and investigate whether this is indeed the case. In many cases, the employee wants to be heard and have the chance to be taken seriously – and sometimes, this on its own is enough to resolve the grievance. 

Here are my eight top tips about grievances:

  1. Avoid them in the first place

    If you have a great culture in the workplace, superb managers, an open style of communication and adult: adult relationships, where people sort out any problems in the moment between themselves, you’ll avoid grievances altogether. Easier said than done though – a good starting point would be to ensure you have the foundations of good people management in place. 

  2. Beef up the informal stage

    Your process will have an informal stage where things try to get resolved before a formal grievance is raised. This is an important stage that shouldn’t be readily dismissed. Instead, try to resolve anything you can in an informal manner, as people tend to be more flexible and understanding. 

  3. Have clear timescales

    If an employee has decided to raise a grievance, the last thing you want to add to their list of concerns and complaints is a grievance with no set timescale, or one that’s taking too long to resolve. Be clear up front as to how long you expect to take to deal with it. Every grievance is different so don’t expect consistency, however, giving the aggrieved employee an idea of how long it might take is only fair. Whilst you will have timescales mentioned in your procedure, all the law requires is that you deal with matters promptly. Keeping them informed of any changes is vital. Things happen, plans change, but it’s important this is communicated to the employee, as they will be directly affected.

  4. Communicate well

    The importance of communicating what is happening throughout, and any next steps, cannot be overlooked. Over communicate at times, and be open and transparent about what happens at each stage. Employees will fill in the gaps themselves, so it’s your job to ensure this doesn’t happen. 

  5. Be reasonable and impartial 

    This is about being grown up about things. The employee may be annoyed about something, and you may be equally annoyed but that’s no excuse to be unreasonable. Be sensible and impartial. Any hint of bias and the process is kaput. 

  6. Clarity on outcomes

    Whilst you don’t have to give an outcome at the main meeting, it’s better to communicate the outcomes face-to-face, even if it means a separate gathering. The employee deserves this, and it’s how you’d want to be treated if you were the aggrieved. It may be awkward, depending on the outcome being communicated, but that’s why managers have a higher pay grade, to deal with such issues. 

  7. Rebuild well

    No matter the outcome, unless the employee has resigned, there’s some rebuilding to do, and it’s a two-way process. Bridges need to be rebuilt, relationships repaired. Everyone involved, including you, must bear some responsibility for that – so you should give some thought to how this might work when preparing to deliver your outcome.

  8. Have a sensible appeal process

    If you’ve not upheld the grievance, the employee has the right of appeal. This should be to someone not previously involved, and at least at the same level as the person who originally dealt with it. This might, for some small employers, involve appointing a third party (e.g. HR consultant) to do the appeal. Don’t be afraid to do that, no matter the cost. The independence of the appeal, and the review of the process and outcome, are all important here. 

Hopefully these tips well help you deal with grievances but, as everyone is different, don’t be afraid to seek advice if you’re unsure about anything. 

Good luck!

Author: Gary Cookson (a father of four, husband and CIPD Chartered Fellow) runs his own business called EPIC, which helps people and places to Evolve, Perform, Improve and Compete.

Explore related resources

These areas of the People Skills Hub will help you address some of the issues covered in this blog:

  • Legal requirements and compliance: learn about the legal requirements of being an employer

  • Handling grievances: Guidance on the best procedures for dealing with any grievances raised by your employees

  • Dismissal: Guidance on the best way to manage a dismissal, with information on avoiding unfair dismissal, wrongful dismissal and constructive dismissal