A Guide to Handling Workplace Grievances

Posted in : HR Updates on 6 April 2018
Helen O'Brien
Personnel and Training Services
Issues covered:

In this latest addition to our video series, Helen O’Brien who joins us in a short Q&A on handling workplace grievances. Helen has experience in all aspects of HR from the preparation of employment documentation to employment advice and in this short 7 minute Q&A session, Helen focuses on using her experience to provide advice on handling grievances in the workplace. Helen explains what constitutes a grievance, how best to handle it and what to do if an employee goes off sick after raising a grievance. She stresses the importance of following the LRA code of practice alongside internal policies, and what impact there will be if we don’t follow due process.



What is a grievance and how should we handle it?

Well, a grievance is any complaint that an employee would be making to their employer about their work. It really is as wide as that. So, it can be about their contract of employment, perhaps some terms and conditions. But what we usually find in our experience is that it's more usually about an employee's grievance against another employee, or also about their manager.

The best bit of advice I can give any client dealing with a grievance is try and deal with it informally first, because if you can deal with it informally, you can usually get it dealt with an awful lot quicker and you can get back to the employee and get it resolved, which avoids people becoming polarised and their attitudes becoming a bit difficult about the grievance that has been raised. So, the manager would just speak to others, maybe look up some records, and be able to get back to the employee quite quickly.

Remember, the most important thing is that the employee is satisfied with the handling of the grievance. So, it doesn't matter whether it's formal or informal when you think of it that way.

If an employee puts their grievance in writing, does it have to be dealt with formally?

No, not necessarily. You don't have to deal with it formally. It really depends on the circumstances. Can I also say that if an employee doesn't put it in writing, you may still want to do with it formally? It really depends on the circumstances. If somebody is complaining to you just verbally about some inappropriate behaviour of a manager, you may decide that that's something that you want to deal with formally because you consider it to be serious enough.

As I said before, decide on the circumstances, and the most important thing is that you do actually deal with it. If you are going to deal with it formally, you do need to have a meeting with the individual involved, and they need to be given the right to representation. And you are having the meeting to try and find out as much as you can about their grievance. It could be that they've got a lot of information in the letter that they gave you, but they might not. So, it's for you to question and try and find out exactly what their issue is.

And then you would go away and you would investigate that, perhaps speak to others. You may have to do a little bit of investigation, and then get back to the employee in writing. You can have another meeting to meet with the employee and give them the outcome, or you can just give them the outcome in writing. It really depends.

Remember to follow the LRA code of practice, but also any of your own internal procedures that you may have, because it's very important. And keep thorough records. Whether you're dealing with it formally or informally, keep records. Probably anybody listening will know that if you don't follow the due processes, then any awards at tribunal can be increased by 50%. So, it's quite important.

What if the outcome of the grievance is that employee gets a final written warning? Does this have to be communicated to the employee who took the grievances?

Well, that another employee gets disciplinary action would be one of the results of an investigation, but wouldn't really be the outcome of the investigation. The outcome of the investigation has got to be communicated to the employee who raised it. "We have found this, we haven't find this in the course of our investigations. These are our conclusions on the issues that you have raised."

If you're giving another employee, as a result, a final written warning, that should not be communicated to the person who's raised the grievance. It is sufficient to say that the company have investigated and they are going to take appropriate action.

What if the employee raises a grievance and then goes off sick?

That very usually happens. It really depends on the reason why they've gone off sick. Quite often, if they've raised a grievance, they can be going off with stress or work-related stress. Now if it's work-related stress, there's no doubt that you are not going to be able to deal with the grievance and you're not going to be able to resolve it and get them back to work unless you actually meet with them. So, I would try and meet with them to discuss their grievance.

If they say they're not able, then maybe leave it a few weeks and come back and see if they are in a better position to be able to talk to you about their grievance.

Sometimes you've actually got enough in the letter of grievance to deal with it anyway and go on and investigate it, and then get back in touch with them and let them know in writing the outcome of the grievance. But then you've still got to try and have an ill health review meeting with them to get them back to work.

What if an employee raises a formal grievance during a disciplinary process?

This can be quite tricky and it really depends on whether what they're raising is related to the disciplinary process. So, quite often, what we find is what an employee is raising at their grievance is just their defence to the disciplinary process. "So, you're accusing me of this allegation, but X, Y, and Z had already done this or said this to me." Clearly, that's related, and the employee should be told that it is part of their defence for the disciplinary issue and that you're going to deal with it like that rather than as a separate grievance.

Sometimes, though, we find the grievance can be completely unrelated. So, if you're, for example, dealing with somebody on their absence issues for example or their performance, and they come and say, "Well, I want to tell you about something that happened a couple of weeks ago in a completely different area with another employee or another individual," in which case you would say, "That probably isn't related, and therefore we will suspend the disciplinary process. We will deal with the grievance issue, we will exhaust that, and then we will go back to the disciplinary issue."

What happens if a grievance is raised as a result of a company night out?

Well, if it's a company night out, then the normal rules apply. It's still in the course of employment even though it may be outside ours and even though it's outside the workplace.

What I would say is be careful not to fall into the trap that a lot of people do in presuming that it's all to do with alcohol consumption, and maybe brushing some of the things that have happened under the carpet because everybody had too much to drink.

It's a good idea if you are going to have a company night out, particularly at Christmas, that you send a memo out to everybody before it just to say, "Look, we want you all to have a good time, but can you please understand that the normal rules of behaviour will apply? We expect you to conduct yourselves reasonably."

How would you deal with a grievance where a colleague has become aggrieved due to a comment outside of work, e.g. social media?

It really doesn't matter where the comment has been made. If they are aware of the comment and it has offended them or has made the working relationship difficult or has made them awkward, then they should raise this as a grievance.

There may be issues, or people sometimes raise issues, about the fact that that's an invasion of their private life, but it can't be private if it has actually come to that employee's attention, and therefore we deal with it in the normal way.


This article is correct at 06/04/2018

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Helen O'Brien
Personnel and Training Services

The main content of this article was provided by Helen O'Brien. Contact telephone number is 028 2564 4110 or email HelenOB@pts-ni.com

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