What are grievances in the workplace?

A grievance is any problem, concern or complaint that an employee has at work.

There is no legal meaning of “grievance” but it covers a very wide range of possible complaints, including issues with the working environment, colleagues’ behaviour, things an employer has done (or not done) or complaints relating to the terms of employment contracts such as pay or holiday.

Often these are not too serious and can be resolved informally by talking to a manager or member of the HR team. However, where the issue is of a serious nature, such as bullying or harassment, or informal action has failed to resolve things, an employee should consider using their employer’s formal grievance procedure to resolve the matter.

To ensure no misunderstandings, a formal grievance should be set out in writing, dated and sent to the appropriate person at the employer such as the HR manager (it may be helpful to copy the written grievance to several people so that it does not get overlooked), even if the complaint has already been raised orally.

Find more details about grievances at work here.

How to handle grievances at work

All employers are required to have a formal grievance procedure. This is usually found in the staff handbook or, sometimes in the employment contract itself.

Some employers refer to their grievance procedures as “problem solving frameworks” and this can be a useful way to think of them. Employees should always set out in their grievance letter what outcome they are seeking and what measures can their employer take to resolve the problem?

The key for employers when handling grievances is to deal with these promptly and not to ignore them. An unnecessary delay by an employer in dealing with an employee’s grievance may be a breach of contract, entitling them to resign and claim constructive dismissal.

Employers should take grievances seriously, investigate them fairly and take decisions in an impartial and non-discriminatory manner. In summary this will involve:

  • Investigating the problem to get as much relevant information.
  • Holding a formal meeting with the employee to discuss the grievance.
  • Giving everyone the chance to have their say before making a decision.
  • Allowing the employee to be accompanied at grievance meetings by a work colleague or trade union representative.
  • Making decisions and taking appropriate action as soon as possible.
  • Notifying the employee in writing of the grievance decision.
  • Allowing the employee to appeal any grievance outcome.

What legislation covers discipline and grievances at work?

Details of the employer’s disciplinary and grievance procedures is one of the important pieces of information which must be given to an employee in their written statement of particulars at the start of employment. This is covered in the Employment Rights Act 1996.

As a minimum, any grievance procedure should comply with the statutory, best practice guidance set out in the ACAS Code of Practice on disciplinary and grievances procedures. While breach of this guidance is not actionable itself, an employment tribunal may take it into account and increase compensation by up to 25% in relevant cases.

There is an implied term in every contract of employment that an employer will deal with grievances raised by employees in a timely manner. Failure to do so could result in the employee being able to resign and claim constructive, unfair dismissal.

Where a grievance involves an allegation of discrimination, a failure by the employer to deal with or resolve the matter satisfactorily could also amount to an act of discrimination, enabling the employee to bring a stand-alone claim or increasing the compensation they may be awarded.

Handling grievances properly

We can help you handle employee grievances properly. We will check to see if there is any substance to the complaint and, if so, how to best manage the process. We will give your business the upper hand and protect it from claims.

We will ensure that employee grievances are dealt with as quickly as possible, minimising the risk to your business, including the possibility of unfair dismissal, victimisation and other claims.

Contact us now to find out how we can help.

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Expertise for employers

Starting employment: contracts and policies

During employment: handling staff problems

Common issues raised by staff

Ending employment

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