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Three Mistakes Employers Make Handling Grievances

Grievances take a wide variety of forms. Handle it well and you can often avoid issues from escalating, and even increase the faith employees have in their employer. Handle it badly and anything from disillusionment to full blown litigation can follow. So, what are the top three mistakes that employers make when handling grievances?

Too Formal Too Fast

It’s that moment all employers and HR professionals dread: the letter from a member of staff cataloguing a long list of concerns; the call about a colleague’s behaviour; or the email complaining about the working environment. But the action taken on receiving a grievance is crucial.

For example, take an employee who raises concerns to HR about what he sees as unfair criticism of his work from his manager. To immediately launch into a formal process can be counter-productive – particularly as the manager and employee will probably need to continue working together. An informal route can be much more effective. There may have been a simple misunderstanding; or it may be a communication issue to be resolved through an informal conversation or training on giving feedback.

Ultimately it is important to understand what the employee wants. Wherever possible employers should ensure that employees feel in control of their grievance and discussing the outcome they are seeking is important.

There will be occasions where the nature of the allegations is so serious that formal action is necessary. Make sure that the response is proportionate and engage with the issues at the earliest stage before deciding how to proceed.

Snap Judgments

One of the difficulties employers face when receiving a grievance is that, initially at least, they will only have one side of the story. It is essential not to jump to conclusions. Proper investigation is a key part of any grievance process.

The nature and extent of the investigation will depend on the issues raised. A reasonable investigation will not only help to establish the true facts but will help to shield the employer from allegations of unfairness.

The Outcome 

Employers will often spend many weeks (and sometimes months) investigating and concluding a grievance, but sometimes a decision letter will say little more than, “I have decided not to uphold your grievance”. Bearing in mind the emotion often invested by an employee in their grievance, this is bound to lead to problems.

It may seem obvious but explaining to an employee how a decision has been reached is crucial. Even an employee who disagrees with the decision can at least feel that their views have been considered. Moreover, if that decision was ever to be challenged, the letter will be a contemporaneous record of how the decision was reached. Contrast that with a manager trying to recall his rationale in an employment tribunal many months later, and it is easy to see why it is so important.

Whether or not a grievance is upheld, it is rare that no action at all will be needed. Where two colleagues have fallen out, it may prove that neither is without fault. That may mean that a grievance is not upheld, but unless action is taken to mend bridges, further staff unrest will follow.

Our Top Tips

  • Keep the employee informed. Make a diary note to contact the employee at least once every week to give them an update on progress, and when they can expect to have an outcome.
  • Make sure managers understand its importance. Handling a grievance is often well down the list of a manager’s priorities. But waiting weeks to start investigating, postponing meetings, and delaying sending out a decision will be heavily criticised by any employment tribunal.
  • Follow your policies. Many employers have a grievance procedure setting out timescales for resolution. Whilst most will be non-contractual, missing deadlines will often mean that employees will lose faith in the process.
  • Document the process. The documents are an employer’s lifeline if ever challenged on its handling of the process. This includes documents from the investigation, notes of meetings (ideally approved by the interviewee on each occasion) and, often most significantly, the decision letter.

If you need any advice in relation to a handling a grievance, please do not hesitate to call us on 01133 50 40 30 or at emma.roberts@scesolicitors.co.uk.

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SCE Solicitors is a boutique employment law and dispute resolution practice based in Leeds which advises clients nationwide. Please note that the information in this blog is to provide information of general interest in a summary manner and should not be construed as individual legal advice. Readers should consult with SCE Solicitors or other professional counsel before acting on the information contained here.

Emma Roberts
Latest posts by Emma Roberts (see all)
Emma Roberts

Emma is a trainee solicitor at SCE Solicitors. Emma commenced her training contract in September 2018 and is currently working in the employment law department assisting director Samira Cakali. Emma also assists in the running of the firm’s myHR service where she can support you in the day-to-day management of your staff.

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