There are various ways that a grievance at work can be dealt with, depending on the nature and severity of the issues being raised. In some cases, a relatively minor matter may be dealt with informally but, if not effectively resolved, this may need to be dealt with by way of a formal grievance procedure. In other cases, the matter may be so serious that only a formal procedure should be used, in this way ensuring that any decision-making is carefully documented and all steps have been taken in an attempt to resolve the matter internally.
The following practical guidance for employers looks at what is meant by a grievance at work, together with common examples of workplace grievances. We also look at an employer’s legal obligations to deal with grievances at work, the procedure that should be followed and the potential consequences if a grievance at work is not adequately resolved.
What is a grievance at work?
A grievance at work is where an issue, concern or problem is raised by an employee with their employer. It can refer to any situation that an employee is unhappy with at work, and which they have made known to their employer by way of an informal or formal complaint.
In many cases, a workplace grievance will involve an alleged breach of an employee’s statutory or contractual rights at work, or where they otherwise feel that they are being treated unfairly. Essentially, grievances at work can arise over all sorts of issues, from the contractual terms and conditions under which an employee is required to work, to how they are being treated at work by either their employer and/or their work colleagues.
Examples of grievances at work
Below we set out some of the most common examples of types of grievances at work:
Issues over pay
If an employee is paid late, or paid the incorrect amount, this can often give rise to a grievance at work. This could arise as a result of unpaid bonuses or commission, or around outstanding holiday pay. In some cases, this may be because of an administrative oversight or error, and can be easily resolved via payroll. In others, it may be a misunderstanding on the employee’s part as to what they are owed, where again a simple explanation can help to resolve the matter. However, where there is a substantive disagreement as to what an employee is contractually entitled to be paid, this type of dispute can easily escalate into a formal grievance, or even a claim for unlawful deduction of wages or breach of contract.
It is not uncommon for employers to seek to change the terms and conditions under which an employee works, such as the employee’s working hours or place of work, typically to help run the business more efficiently or even as a way of saving the business from closure.
In cases where the employee’s contract contains a clause permitting these types of changes, the employee may have no real basis upon which to raise a grievance, provided they have been adequately consulted, and given reasonable notice, about the change. However, where changes are made without the employee’s consent in circumstances where there is no contractual provision to do so, or where a flexibility or mobility clause is unreasonably exercised, the employee may have a claim for fundamental breach of contract. If they feel forced to resign because of this, they may also have a claim for constructive dismissal.
Discrimination at work can be either direct or indirect. Direct discrimination is where an employee is treated less favourably than others because they possess a particular protected characteristic, such as their gender, age, sexuality, disability, religion or beliefs. Indirect discrimination is where there is a workplace policy, rule or practice that puts someone who possesses a protected characteristic at an unfair disadvantage when compared with others.
In either scenario, the discriminatory effect does not have to be intentional for it to be unlawful and can arise in countless ways. This could include, for example, where someone is denied a public-facing role because they are transgender, or denied a promotion because they are female and have childcare commitments. It could also be where a workplace policy prohibits someone from wearing religious headwear to work without good reason. In any of these cases, and others, unless the discriminatory conduct complained of can be resolved internally, allegations can again escalate into tribunal claims for unlawful discrimination.
Bullying and harassment
Any form of bullying and harassment at work is unacceptable, although where someone is subjected to unwanted conduct because they possess a protected characteristic, this is a form of unlawful discrimination for which the employer can be held liable. Even if the employer is not directly responsible for the conduct, if they fail to take reasonable steps to put a stop to this, such as taking disciplinary action against any member of staff allegedly involved, the employee may have a discrimination claim against the employer.
When it comes to bullying, this does not give rise to a cause of action of itself, not unless the bullying relates to a protected characteristic. However, where an employer again fails to take reasonable steps to resolve bullying at work, an employee may feel forced to resign for breach of the implied duty of mutual trust and confidence. In these circumstances, the employee may have a claim for constructive dismissal based on the employer’s inaction.
How to handle grievances at work
While there is no specific UK law that mandates organisations to have a formal grievance policy in place, Acas strongly recommends that employers have a grievance procedure as good practice and an effective way for employers to manage workplace disputes and conflicts.
All employers must have a written grievance procedure in place which complies with certain minimum standards of fairness, as set out in the Acas Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures. This includes the way in which an employee should raise their grievance, as well as the way in which their grievance will be handled.
In some cases, a grievance may be relatively minor and therefore suitable for being dealt with on an informal basis, such as a confidential chat with a line manager, or with someone from HR or payroll. However, even in these circumstances, employees should still be signposted to the employer’s written grievance procedure, in case they would like to lodge a formal grievance instead. Equally, if the matter cannot be adequately resolved internally, despite best efforts, the employee should again be advised to put their complaint in writing so that a formal grievance process can be initiated by the employer.
In broad terms, when handling a grievance, it is often about finding the quickest and most effective resolution to the issue(s) raised to the employee’s satisfaction, without the matter escalating into a formal grievance. However, if the matter is especially serious, or cannot otherwise be resolved on an informal basis, ensuring that the matter is fully investigated and appropriate action is taken in response may be necessary to avoid legal proceedings.
It can also be important for the employer to carefully document this process, so that there is clear evidence of any decision-making and action taken in the event of a tribunal claim.
Informal grievance at work procedure
An informal grievance procedure is a valuable approach for UK employers to address minor workplace issues and concerns in a flexible and approachable manner. Here’s how it should work:
First and foremost, employers should create a workplace culture that encourages open communication, making it easy for employees to approach their line managers or immediate supervisors to discuss their concerns. Accessibility is key to ensuring that employees are aware of the informal process and know how to initiate it.
Once an employee raises an informal grievance, employers or managers should respond promptly. This involves acknowledging the employee’s concern and scheduling a meeting to discuss it in a timely manner. Promptness in response conveys to the employee that their issue is taken seriously.
Confidentiality is a vital component of the informal grievance procedure. Both employers and employees should treat the matter with discretion, ensuring that the employee’s privacy is respected. A confidential process encourages open communication and makes employees more comfortable sharing their concerns.
During the meeting to discuss the grievance, employers should foster an open and honest dialogue. The employee should be given the opportunity to explain their concerns in detail, and employers should actively listen and ask questions to gain a clear understanding of the problem.
The objective of the discussion is to identify potential solutions or resolutions to the grievance. Employers and employees can work together to propose changes to working conditions, address interpersonal conflicts, or find mutually acceptable compromises.
It’s advisable to document the informal grievance discussion, including the date, participants, and details of the conversation. These records can be valuable for future reference if the issue persists or escalates to a formal grievance.
After the informal meeting, employers should follow up with the employee to ensure that any agreed-upon actions have been taken and that the issue has been resolved to the employee’s satisfaction. This demonstrates a commitment to effectively addressing the concern.
Each informal grievance should be viewed as an opportunity for employers to learn and improve. By addressing concerns and making necessary changes, employers can enhance the overall workplace environment and prevent similar grievances from arising in the future.
Employers should monitor informal grievances over time to identify any recurring issues or trends. This information can be valuable for making systemic improvements and preventing similar grievances from arising in the future.
Finally, it’s essential to ensure that all employees are aware of the informal grievance procedure and how to initiate it. Training may be provided to managers and supervisors to equip them with the skills to handle informal grievances effectively.
Formal grievance at work procedure
The way in which a grievance is dealt with can often depend on the nature and severity of the complaint made. However, once a written grievance has been lodged, the employer must follow a full and fair procedure, which as a minimum must be in line with the Acas Code, even when there is no organisational workplace policy in place. The procedure can be adjusted depending on the size of the employer’s business or organisation. For example, a manager of a small business with one or two employees might need to manage the grievance procedure on their own.
However, regardless of the size of the organisation, the employer must:
- make clear that they will deal with grievances fairly and consistently, where an employer should aim to follow the same fair procedure if a similar grievance has been raised before
- investigate the matter fully to get as much information as possible, gathering evidence from all sides and considering all the information available
- allow the employee, on reasonable request, to be accompanied to their grievance hearing by a relevant person, such as a fellow worker or trade union representative
- where further information is needed before making a decision, the employee should be informed of this in writing and told of the likely timescale involved
- give everyone a chance to have their say before making a decision, including allowing the employee to explain how they would like their complaint to be resolved
- take action and make decisions as soon as they can, where a grievance hearing should be held without unreasonable delay, ideally within 5 working days
- provide the employee with a written outcome of their grievance as soon as possible, including reasons for the decision reached and what action, if any, is going to be taken
- allow the employee to appeal against the outcome of their grievance.
If the employee’s grievance is upheld, the employer may need to take further steps to resolve the matter complained of, including taking disciplinary action against another member of staff where allegations of misconduct have been raised against them. It could also require the employer to take positive steps to address any matters for which they are directly responsible, such as discharging any arrears of pay in the context of a salary dispute or making changes to the employee’s working conditions.
What to include in a workplace grievance policy
In practice, a workplace grievance policy is a crucial component of an organisation’s overall approach to addressing and resolving workplace disputes and conflicts. It provides a structured framework for employers to address and resolve issues promptly, consistently and fairly, thereby mitigating legal risk, while allowing employees to voice their concerns and seek resolutions, fostering a harmonious, positive and productive work environment.
A well-constructed grievance policy should include several key elements to ensure that it is clear, effective, and fair for all parties involved:
Scope and Purpose: Begin the grievance policy with a clear statement of its scope and purpose. Explain that the policy is intended to provide employees with a mechanism for addressing workplace issues, conflicts, and concerns in a fair, consistent, and confidential manner.
Definition of Grievance: Define what constitutes a grievance within the organization. This can include any issue, concern, or complaint related to employment, such as harassment, discrimination, working conditions, or interpersonal conflicts.
Access and Communication: Describe how employees can access the grievance procedure, including whom they should contact and how they can submit their concerns. Provide multiple channels for submitting grievances, such as in-person meetings, written submissions, or electronic forms.
Confidentiality: Emphasise the importance of confidentiality in the grievance process. Assure employees that their concerns will be handled discreetly, to the extent possible, while maintaining transparency where necessary.
Timelines: Establish clear timelines for each stage of the grievance process. Specify how quickly the organization aims to respond to grievances, conduct investigations, and provide resolutions. This ensures that the process is not unnecessarily prolonged.
Investigation Process: Outline the steps involved in investigating a grievance. Describe who will conduct the investigation, how evidence will be gathered, and how witnesses may be interviewed. Ensure that investigators are unbiased and impartial.
Right to Representation: Explain whether employees have the right to representation, such as a colleague or union representative, during the grievance process. This can help ensure fairness and provide emotional support.
Resolutions and Outcomes: Detail the potential outcomes of the grievance process, including possible resolutions and remedies, such as disciplinary actions, mediation, or policy changes. Ensure that the resolution aligns with the nature of the grievance.
Appeals Process: If an employee is dissatisfied with the outcome, describe the steps for filing an appeal. Specify the designated authority or committee responsible for reviewing appeals and their role in the process.
Protection Against Victimisation: Emphasise that employees are protected from retaliation for filing a grievance. Make it clear that any form of retaliation is strictly prohibited and will be dealt with appropriately.
Record Keeping: Indicate the organisation’s record-keeping practices for documenting grievances, investigations, and outcomes. These records can be essential for monitoring trends and ensuring accountability.
Training and Awareness: Highlight the organisation’s commitment to training employees, managers, and HR staff on the grievance policy and process. Promote awareness of the policy and encourage employees to report concerns promptly.
Review and Continuous Improvement: Explain that the grievance policy is subject to periodic review and improvement. Encourage feedback from employees and stakeholders to make necessary adjustments and keep the policy relevant.
Legal Compliance: Ensure that the policy complies with all applicable laws and regulations related to employment, workplace safety, and anti-discrimination.
Communication Plan: Define how the organization will communicate the grievance policy to all employees. This may include distributing the policy handbook, conducting training sessions, and making the policy easily accessible through the company’s intranet or website.
External Resources: Provide information on external agencies or ombudsmen that employees can contact if they believe their grievance has not been adequately addressed within the organisation.
Language and Accessibility: Ensure that the policy is available in multiple languages if your workforce is linguistically diverse. Make it easily accessible to employees with disabilities or those who may need accommodations or adjustments.
How to implement a grievance policy
Implementing a grievance policy is a crucial endeavor for employers aiming to cultivate a work environment where employees feel comfortable voicing their concerns and resolving disputes. To establish and effectively implement such a policy, there are several practical steps that employers can follow.
First and foremost, it’s essential to craft a clear and comprehensive grievance policy. This policy should articulate its purpose, scope, and objectives, clarifying what constitutes a grievance and setting expectations for a fair and transparent resolution process.
To ensure that the policy is employee-centric and aligns with their needs, it’s advisable to engage employees and their representatives in the policy development process. Their input can provide valuable insights and enhance the policy’s effectiveness and credibility.
Appointing a responsible individual or team to manage the grievance process is crucial. This designated person, often a human resources representative or a grievance officer, should oversee the implementation of the policy.
Promoting awareness of the grievance policy among all employees is paramount. This can be achieved by distributing the policy handbook, conducting training sessions, and making the policy readily accessible through the organization’s intranet or website.
The creation of a standardized grievance form is another practical step. This form should include necessary information, such as the nature of the grievance, involved parties, relevant dates, and desired outcomes, making it easier for employees to submit their concerns.
Setting clear timelines for each stage of the grievance process is essential. These timelines ensure that the process is efficient and that employees receive timely responses and resolutions.
Confidentiality should be emphasized throughout the grievance process to safeguard the privacy and comfort of those raising concerns. Only individuals directly involved in the grievance should have access to the information.
Providing training to employees, managers, and human resources staff is crucial. This education equips them with the knowledge and skills needed to navigate the grievance policy and procedures competently and fairly.
Thorough documentation of each grievance is indispensable for accountability and transparency. This documentation should encompass the initial complaint, any investigative activities, discussions, and the final resolution.
The periodic review and improvement of the policy is a best practice. Soliciting feedback from employees and stakeholders helps identify areas for enhancement, ensuring that the policy remains current and effective.
Ultimately, demonstrating fairness, impartiality, and transparency throughout the grievance process is key. Appointing qualified and unbiased investigators, offering the option for individuals to be accompanied by a colleague or representative, and adhering to legal and regulatory standards are essential.
By following these practical steps, employers can develop and execute a grievance policy that not only effectively addresses workplace disputes but also fosters a culture of fairness and accountability within the organization. Such a policy promotes a positive work environment and reduces the risk of disputes escalating to more serious legal challenges.
Grievance appeal process
If an informal grievance is not resolved, the employee can lodge a formal grievance in writing. However, if a formal grievance is raised, but the grievance is not upheld, the employee should be given a right of appeal. The employee will need to set out their grounds of appeal without unreasonable delay and the appeal should be heard as soon as reasonably possible. Where at all possible, the appeal hearing should be dealt with by a manager or senior staff member not previously involved in the grievance process. The outcome of the appeal must also be communicated to the employee in writing.
If a grievance cannot be resolved
If the employee remains unhappy with the outcome of the appeal, they may be able to bring a claim before the employment tribunal. In most cases, the employee will be required to discuss the matter first with Acas, to see if the employee agrees to early conciliation. This is a process in which Acas will liaise with the employer and employee to explore a basis for settlement. If both parties agree to engage in early conciliation, this can often be a cost effective way of resolving an ongoing dispute, although the employee is not required to consent to this process and may prefer to pursue the matter before the tribunal instead.
Acas is able to offer free and impartial advice to both employers and employees, where an employer may want to contact Acas prior to a workplace dispute escalating into tribunal proceedings. In this way, the employer may be able to instigate early conciliation if the matter cannot be resolved internally. The Acas website also provides advice on dealing with grievances at work. Alternatively, employers may want to seek expert advice from an employment law specialist to explore the available options for resolving a dispute.
Settlement agreement following grievance
Settlement agreements are important tools for employers when dealing with workplace disputes such as grievances. These legal documents outline the terms and conditions under which employment issues will be resolved, and they can help both employers and employees reach mutually agreeable solutions. Here are some best practices for employers when using settlement agreements after a grievance:
- Open and Early Communication: It’s essential to maintain open communication with the employee involved in the grievance right from the beginning. This means actively listening to their concerns and working together to explore potential solutions before considering a settlement agreement.
- Legal Advice: Both the employer and the employee should have the opportunity to seek independent legal advice before finalizing the settlement agreement. This ensures that both parties fully comprehend the agreement’s terms and the potential implications.
- Negotiation: Approach the negotiation process with a spirit of collaboration and flexibility. The agreement should be fair and reasonable for both parties, and be prepared to make reasonable concessions during the negotiation.
- Clarity and Completeness: The settlement agreement should provide clear and comprehensive details of the terms, including any financial compensation, reference provisions, and confidentiality clauses. Ambiguity should be avoided to prevent future disputes.
- Timely Resolution: Strive to reach a resolution in a timely manner through the settlement agreement. Delays can prolong the stress and uncertainty for everyone involved, so it’s in the best interest of all parties to expedite the process.
- Confidentiality: Consider including a confidentiality clause in the agreement, ensuring that both the employer and the employee agree not to discuss the agreement’s terms or the underlying grievance with third parties.
- Handling References and Recommendations: Address how references and recommendations will be managed in the agreement. Ensure that any negative references are avoided, and, if applicable, provide a neutral or positive reference.
- Legal Compliance: It’s crucial to ensure that the settlement agreement is in line with all applicable employment laws and regulations. Seeking legal advice is essential to confirm that the agreement adheres to legal standards.
- No Pressure or Coercion: Both parties should enter into the settlement agreement voluntarily and without any undue pressure or coercion. Employees should feel free to reject the agreement without fearing any retaliation.
- Signing and Dating: Once the terms are agreed upon, the settlement agreement should be signed and dated by both the employer and the employee, as this document is legally binding.
- Retention of Records: Maintain records of the settlement agreement and any related correspondence. These records can be useful for reference and for documenting the resolution.
Failure to properly deal with a grievance at work
If an employer fails to deal with a grievance at work, either adequately or at all, there can be a number of adverse consequences arising out of this, including the employer being forced to defend a claim before the employment tribunal. A failure to resolve a grievance can also result in conflict at work, reduced employee engagement, the employee taking sick leave for work-related stress or even the loss of a valuable member of staff.
Additionally, any failure to follow a full and fair grievance procedure can affect the outcome of any tribunal claim that may be made at a later date. This is because the procedure that has been followed, and whether or not the employer has complied with the minimum standards of fairness, can be taken into account where a formal grievance was lodged in writing. A failure to follow the Code of Practice does not, of itself, make an employer or organisation liable to tribunal proceedings. However, employment tribunals will take the Acas Code into account and can adjust any compensatory awards made in relevant cases by up to 25% for any unreasonable failure to comply with any provision of the Code.
Contact us for expert advice on any aspect of grievances at work, including developing grievance at work policies, procedures and implementation plans, or for specialist guidance on a specific grievance you are facing.
Grievance at work FAQs
What counts as a grievance at work?
A grievance at work is a concern or complaint raised by an employee with their employer. This could be anything from an informal complaint made to a line manager about pay to a written complaint involving serious allegations of discrimination.
On what grounds can you raise a grievance?
You can raise a grievance at work on a number of different grounds, including any issue arising out of your working conditions or working environment. This could be, for example, a one-off pay issue or a complaint about ongoing harassment.
How long does an employer have to respond to a grievance UK?
Where a formal grievance has been raised by an employee in writing, in accordance with the official guidance provided by Acas, the employer should hold a grievance meeting without unreasonable delay, and ideally within 5 working days.
Last updated: 3 September 2023