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Grievance At Work FAQs

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Grievances at work can arise in various contexts and cover a variety of employment rights and issues. Employers and employees are expected to follow ACAS guidance on resolving grievance and disciplinary issues, but it can be easy to fall foul of best practice during such a stressful and complex process, which can make resolution less achievable.

It is therefore important for both employers and employees alike to understand the basis of these rights and the circumstances in which a grievance can be raised. Equally, it’s important for the parties to know how best to approach a workplace grievance to ensure that the complaint is resolved quickly and effectively, and without recourse to legal proceedings, if at all possible.

The following guide covers a sample of common grievance at work scenarios, as well as how workplace grievances should be approached and addressed by those directly involved.


What is a grievance at work?

A workplace grievance is where an employee has a problem or complaint arising out of a situation at work which they are unhappy with or is causing them undue concern — typically where their statutory or contractual employment rights have been breached in some way, or where they feel they are being treated unfairly — and that they wish to take this up with their employer on either an informal or formal basis.

Grievances at work can arise over a wide range of employment issues, from the terms and conditions under which an employee is working to how they are being treated by their employer or co-workers.

In the first instance, employees should be encouraged to raise any issues informally with an appropriate individual in the organisation. For example, a telephone call to someone from payroll over a salary discrepancy, or a chat with their line manager or HR over the alleged misconduct of others or about things they are being asked to do as part of their job.

Where it is not been possible to resolve a grievance informally, or where the matter is especially serious, an employee can raise a concern or complaint formally and in writing. Once a written grievance has been lodged, the employer is then duty-bound to follow a formal grievance procedure — even absent any written policy or processinvestigating the matter in full and providing the employee with a written outcome, with reasons why, and a right of appeal.

If the grievance is upheld, the employer may need to take further steps to resolve the matter complained of. This could include taking disciplinary action against another employee where allegations have been raised and findings of misconduct made against them. It could also require the employer to take positive steps to address any matters for which they’re directly responsible, for example, discharging any arrears of pay in the context of a salary dispute, or making changes to the working conditions of the employee.


Examples of grievances at work

Some of the most common examples of grievances at work include:

Pay disputes: disputes can commonly arise over late payment of salary, outstanding holiday pay, unpaid bonuses and underpayment of commission. In many cases, discrepancies may have arisen as a result of an administrative error or oversight that can be easily dealt with via payroll. However, where the matter cannot be resolved in this way, or there is a substantive disagreement between the parties as to what an employee is entitled to be paid, this type of dispute can quickly escalate into a formal grievance. Further, if the grievance cannot be resolved internally, this could result in a tribunal claim for unlawful deduction of wages or a breach of contract claim before the civil courts.

Changes to the employment contract: it’s not uncommon for an employer to want or need to change an employee’s terms and conditions, for example, their working hours or place of work. In some cases, there may be a flexibility or mobility clause within the employee’s contract of employment permitting certain changes to be made by the employer, although a failure to properly consult with the employee or provide sufficient notice before such changes take effect can often still give cause for complaint. In serious cases, where there has been an alleged fundamental breach of contract, this could even lead to an employee feeling forced to resign and claiming constructive dismissal before a tribunal.

Discrimination: workplace discrimination is based on certain prejudices, and often occurs when an employee is treated unfavourably because they possess a protected characteristic, for example, their age, gender, sexuality, religion or beliefs. This is known as direct discrimination. In contrast, indirect discrimination is where there is a policy, rule or procedure in place at work that puts someone who possesses a protected characteristic at an unfair disadvantage when compared with others. A complaint about discrimination can arise in various ways, for example, where an employee is denied opportunities at work because of nearing retirement age. Unless the discriminatory conduct complained of can be resolved internally, for example, where it was unintentional or has been misconstrued, these types of allegations can often give rise to tribunal claims for unlawful discrimination.

Bullying and harassment: allegations of unfair treatment at work very often stem from the conduct of co-workers, although the employer will still be responsible for taking reasonable steps to prevent or eradicate any unwanted conduct in the workplace. Bullying, of itself, does not give rise to a cause of action but can, where the conduct relates to a protected characteristic, amount to harassment for which a claim can be brought. Harassment is essentially a form of bullying and discrimination combined, and can often take place alongside other forms of discrimination. In circumstances where the matter is not resolved following a formal grievance, unwanted conduct may also be sufficiently serious to justify the employee treating themselves as having been unfairly dismissed.


How should the employee raise a grievance at work?

The nature and extent of any grievance at work will determine how the matter should be approached by an employee, both from a practical and legal perspective. If the concern or complaint is relatively minor, or a one-off incident, the employee will often be best discussing the matter informally with either their boss, line manager or someone from HR or, where relevant to a salary or expenses matter, a person from the payroll department.

Many grievances at work can be resolved informally, where a quiet word is often all that’s needed. However, where attempts to resolve the matter on an informal basis are unsuccessful, or where the matter is too serious to be handled in this way, the employee will need to consider whether they want to lodge a formal written grievance.

Where the employer has a written procedure in place for raising a grievance, the employee should follow this procedure so as to avoid any delay or difficulties in the matter being dealt with. Any grievance procedure can usually be found in the employee’s contract of employment or staff handbook, or on the staff intranet site. Absent any written procedure, an employee can still lodge a formal grievance, instead following the ACAS statutory code of practice. This sets out the procedure that both employers and employees should follow when raising and resolving a grievance, including the basic requirements of fairness and reasonable behaviour.

Although an employee is not required by law to raise a formal written grievance before making a tribunal claim, any failure to do so may be construed as unreasonable, resulting in a reduction in any award of damages. As such, a formal grievance should always be lodged prior to instigating legal proceedings, where at all possible. By putting the complaint in writing, this will also help to support any claim made by the employee at a later stage.


How should the employer handle a grievance at work?

When a formal grievance is lodged by an employee, the employer has a duty to investigate the matter and provide the employee with a written outcome. As such, the employer should arrange for a grievance hearing without unreasonable delay, ideally within five working days.

The grievance hearing will provide the employee with the chance to explain their complaint in detail and how they’d like the matter to be resolved. The employee has a statutory right to be accompanied at that hearing, on reasonable request, in circumstances where the employer is dealing with a complaint about a duty owed to the employee.

Depending on the nature of the complaint and any evidence produced at the hearing, the matter may need to be adjourned for further investigation to take place. However, where the employer has sufficient evidence to make an informed decision, they should provide the employee with a written explanation of their decision as soon as possible, normally within 24 hours of the grievance hearing, together with details of any action they intend to take.

Where further information is needed before making a decision, the employee should instead be informed of this and told of the likely timescale involved.

If the employer has a written grievance procedure in place, they should closely adhere to that procedure otherwise risk being in breach of contract. In any event, the employer must follow the ACAS code of practice. Although any failure to follow the code does not, of itself, make an employer or organisation liable to legal proceedings, a tribunal will take the code into account in relevant cases and can increase any award of damages. A wholesale failure to deal with a grievance can also constitute a breach of the implied term of mutual trust and confidence between the parties, which could lead to a potential constructive dismissal claim.


What if the dispute remains unresolved following the grievance procedure?

If a formal grievance is raised and a full investigation undertaken, but the grievance is not upheld, the employee will have a right of appeal. The employee will need to set out their grounds of appeal without unreasonable delay. The appeal should also be heard as soon as possible, and at a time and place that should be notified to the employee in advance.

Wherever possible, the appeal hearing should be dealt with by a manager or senior member of staff who has not previously been involved in the grievance process. Thereafter, the outcome of the appeal should be communicated to the employee in writing.

If the employee remains unhappy with any final decision, they may want to consider lodging a claim before the employment tribunal or issuing a claim in the civil courts. The tribunal imposes a fairly strict time limit of three months less one day, typically from the matter complained about or when the alleged conduct last took place. This time limit applies, regardless of whether or not the employee has raised a formal grievance in writing.

There is a more generous six-year time limit for issuing a breach of contract claim before the courts, although these types of cases can be much more costly. In any event, given the potential cost and complexity involved in employment rights cases, legal advice from an employment law expert should always be sought as soon as possible by either party who is contemplating or concerned about legal proceedings following a grievance.


Need assistance?

DavidsonMorris’ employment lawyers are experienced in all aspects of grievance and disciplinary issues.  With early instruction, we can provide a full assessment of the issue and advise on the options open to you to reduce legal risk while protecting your commercial interests.  For specialist advice, contact us.


Grievance at work FAQs

What constitutes a grievance at work?

A grievance at work is a concern, problem or complaint by an employee — either about their working conditions or working environment, or someone they work with — that has made them feel unjustly or unfairly treated.

What is an example of a grievance?

A workplace grievance could involve a change to an employee’s terms and conditions, where those changes have not been agreed in advance, or because an employee is being subjected to unfair treatment, such as bullying or harassment.

What are the three types of grievances?

A grievance can either be raised individually, by a group of employers where they’re all complaining about the same issue, such as a change in working conditions, or a policy or union grievance where management decisions violate an agreement.

Can I be sacked for raising a grievance?

In certain circumstances, an employee is protected from unfair treatment for raising a grievance, including being sacked. If you’re unfairly disciplined or dismissed, for example, for complaining about discrimination or harassment, you can bring a claim for victimisation.

Last updated: 31 May 2021

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