Grievance procedures exist to enable employers and employees to resolve issues which may arise during the course of the working relationship. All employers are required to provide a framework for dealing with complaints from their staff. In this article, we provide some hints and tips for individuals on bringing a complaint using their employer’s formal grievance procedure.
What is a grievance?
Grievances are concerns, problems or complaints that employees raise with their employers. This could be anything that the employee is unhappy about which is related to the workplace.
This is extremely general; it may be about something the employer has done, or not done, about working conditions or terms and conditions, the actions of a fellow worker or about a third party in the workplace. Examples include:
- not being paid enough or fairly in comparison to a colleague
- dissatisfaction with the level or eligibility for benefits and bonuses
- not being promoted
- work hours
- issues around workplace uniform or dress code
- not being considered for training or career progression
- working conditions, including health and safety, equipment (or lack of) or toilet/washroom facilities
- bullying or harassment in the workplace
- management style/attitude towards you
- personality clashes with other workers
- terms and conditions being varied without agreement
- failure to agree flexible working/change agreed arrangements
- discrimination at work (on the basis of a relevant characteristic such as sex, age, religion or disability)
- refusal to make adjustments to assist someone with a health/disability issue
- being wrongly accused or unfairly disciplined for something
- the employer not following a set procedure correctly
- to complain about the way a redundancy situation is handed
Why would an employee bring a grievance?
Grievances are really a plea from an employee to their employer to listen to them and take a particular workplace matter seriously. Often, employees will have tried and failed to reach an informal solution, or just feel that no one is listening to them and a formal approach is the only way they can escalate matters.
An employer who receives a grievance must treat this as a red flag and as a matter which needs proper attention, in a timely manner. An employer ignores this action at their peril – failure to deal with an employee grievance in a reasonable amount of time can entitle them to resign and claim constructive dismissal.
Bringing a formal workplace grievance should focus minds and hopefully make the employee feel like they are taking a positive step towards a resolution. Particularly where the complaint involves bullying or harassment at work, it is important to get matters documented and escalated to the appropriate level of management.
Some organisations refer to their workplace grievance procedures as “problem solving” procedures, often because it sounds less confrontational and more collaborative. It’s important to remember that the rationale for such a process is to enable the parties to resolve their differences and carry on working effectively.
It may not be necessary to use the formal procedure
Many workplace complaints can be dealt with informally and employees are usually encouraged to raise issues with their line manager in the first instance. If the complaint is related to their line manager then, if possible, it can be raised with a different manager or with HR. A private conversation might be all that is required to deal with a relatively minor concern.
However, if the complaint is more serious or cannot be resolved informally, the employee needs to submit a written complaint in accordance with their employer’s formal grievance procedure.
Where do I find the grievance procedure which applies to me?
Firstly, an employee should refer to their contract of employment which will set out the process in full. If not, it must refer you to another document, such as the staff handbook, which contains the details of your employer’s formal grievance process.
Nowadays many employers have their staff policies online, so search your staff intranet if you have one. If you still are unsure, then ask your HR department or relevant personnel manager.
What does a grievance procedure look like?
A formal grievance procedure is likely to be modelled on the best practice process set out by ACAS in its Code of Practice on disciplinary and grievance procedures. In summary, this requires:
- an employee to set out their workplace grievance in writing
- the employer to then hold a meeting to discuss the grievance
- the employer notifying the employee in writing of its decision
- the employee being given a right of appeal if they are not satisfied with the initial outcome
- an appeal meeting being held (if required)
- the outcome of the appeal being notified to the employee
Do I have to put my workplace grievance in writing?
Yes, this will be required to initiate the process. It will also avoid potential misunderstandings regarding the details of your grievance and ensure the employer is in no doubt that it is a formal complaint which they need to deal with, within a reasonable amount of time. A letter or an email will satisfy the requirement that the grievance is made in writing.
What to include in a grievance letter/email
Your formal written grievance should give your employer as much detail as possible about the nature and circumstances of your complaint. This would include the date, approximate time and location of any relevant incident(s), as well as the names of any witnesses.
Stick to the facts and avoid emotive language and statements or, being abusive. If there are relevant documents such as letters or emails, it will be helpful to include copies of these.
It is also important that you state the outcome you are seeking if you can – what would you like to happen as a result of your grievance? Remember that the procedure is intended to enable the parties to resolve their differences, so make it clear what action will satisfy you.
When do I submit my grievance?
Do not delay too long. When raising a formal grievance, there should not be an unreasonable delay between the incident (or omission) giving rise to the complaint, and the complaint being made.
If you subsequently change your mind, you can always withdraw your complaint, but if you wait too long before bringing a complaint to your employer’s attention, they might not be able to investigate appropriately, or may not take it so seriously.
What happens next?
Once a formal grievance in writing has been received, your employer will invite you to a meeting to discuss it. Ideally, this should be within five working days of receipt of the grievance, however, the employer’s own procedure may lay down a different timescale. What is important is that any timetable is followed and that the grievance is dealt with without unreasonable delay.
The meeting will be held in private in a place where there will not be interruptions. There will be a note-taker to be present to accurately record the meeting (this is likely to be someone from HR). If you have a disability, let your employer know if you will need reasonable adjustments to be made to enable you to attend.
An employee bringing a grievance involving their employer has a legal right to bring a companion along to support them, if they wish. This companion must usually be a fellow worker or a trade union official or representative. It will not usually be reasonable to ask for a family member or solicitor to accompany you, unless this is considered a reasonable adjustment.
You must let your employer know in advance who, if anyone, will accompany you.
What happens at a grievance meeting?
A manager who has not previously been involved in the matter will usually conduct the meeting. In smaller organisations this may not be possible, and it may be appropriate to bring in an independent third party such as an HR consultant to chair the meeting.
At the meeting, an employee must be allowed to explain their grievance and how they think it can be resolved. It may be helpful to work through your grievance letter, adding any further detail and answering questions the person hearing the meeting wants to ask.
Occasionally, it is necessary for the manager to adjourn so that they can follow-up and investigate the matters which have been raised. Even if this is not necessary, the manager is unlikely to give a decision straight away as they will want to take time to consider the matter – this is entirely normal.
The outcome of a grievance
The manager’s decision on what action will be taken must be communicated to an employee, in writing, without unreasonable delay. Any specific timelines set out in the grievance policy should be followed. If there are no timescales set, then within five working days will usually be reasonable (unless the matter is complex and requires extensive investigation). You employer is obliged to keep you informed about any delay.
Where appropriate, such communication will set out what action the employer intends to take to resolve the issue. The communication from the employer should also make it clear that the employee has a right of appeal if they are not satisfied with the decision.
Can you appeal the outcome?
If you are unhappy with your employer’s decision, you should appeal. If you are partially satisfied with the outcome but take issue with some of it, you can still appeal, but make it very clear what part of the outcome you are challenging, and which bit you are not.
It is always best to exhaust the internal process before considering whether legal action might be the appropriate next step in resolving your complaint.
You should submit your appeal in writing within the required timescale. Explain why you believe the outcome of the initial appeal was wrong (for example, was certain evidence not taken into account?) and state what redress you are seeking. Where possible, a manager who has not previously been involved with the matter should consider your appeal. A further meeting will be held to allow you to explain your position.
Employees have the same right to be accompanied at any appeal hearing as at the first grievance meeting. Your employer must inform you in writing of the outcome of the appeal without unreasonable delay.
What to do if you are still not satisfied
Sometimes, employees find that despite appealing their grievance outcome they are still not satisfied with the employer’s response. As you are effectively at the end of the process (unless your employer’s internal process allows for another level of appeal), you will need to decide how you want to proceed.
This will obviously depend upon the nature of the grievance, its seriousness, whether the matters complained of are ongoing (or historical) and your own personal circumstances and feelings about the matter. Potential options include:
- Accepting that your grievance has not been upheld and continuing to work
- Deciding to move on and to start looking for other roles (but continue in employment for now)
- Raising the matter with your trade union (or another employee representative)
- Taking advice from an employment solicitor and instructing them to send a letter on your behalf asking the employer to reconsider
- Bringing an employment tribunal claim based on your complaint
By this stage, it may not be easy for you to keep matters in perspective, so getting some impartial advice about your options can be helpful, whether this is from a solicitor or advice service such as Citizens Advice or ACAS.
Bringing a tribunal claim is not something to be undertaken lightly, so it is recommended that you always seek professional advice to fully understand what is involved before acting. The nature of the complaint will decide the type of any claim which is brought in the tribunal.
Complaints about workplace discrimination, harassment or equal pay can be brought while still employed. If, however, the appropriate claim is constructive (unfair) dismissal you will need to resign i.e. leave your employment. This is a significant step which should not be taken without advice and serious thought first.
How can we help you?
If you have questions because you are currently considering bringing a workplace grievance or going through the procedure, then talk to our employment law specialists today. We’ll help you figure out the best way forward for you.