Dealing with grievances in an effective and proportionate way is important when it comes to minimising conflict in the workplace, not to mention the risk of tribunal claims.
The following guide for employers sets out the key elements of a lawful grievance procedure, including the possible grievance outcomes resulting from either an informal or formal grievance, with illustrative examples of grievances and their outcomes. We also look at what a grievance outcome letter should include.
What is a grievance?
A grievance is a work-related complaint brought by an employee. Grievances should be used to bring issues to the employer’s attention for the matter to be investigated and resolved fairly.
Examples of reasons for making a work-related grievance can include health and safety concerns, harassment from another member of staff, the behaviour of a line manager, or worries over changes in work conditions.
Employees are generally expected to raise any workplace concerns informally, usually to their line manager or supervisor. In most cases, the issue will be satisfactorily resolved. Where the employee is not satisfied that the issue has been addressed, they have the right to bring a formal complaint (‘grievance’). The employer must then respond to the complaint and by following a fair and lawful grievance procedure.
Informal & formal grievance procedures
The possible grievance outcomes available to employers will differ, depending on whether a grievance is raised and resolved on either an informal or formal basis. This, in turn, will very much depend on the nature of the problem raised or complaint made, where grievances at work can cover all kinds of different scenarios, from issues in relation to the conduct of other members of staff to the acts or omissions of the employer.
An informal grievance is where an employee has raised a problem or made a complaint verbally, and is happy for the employer to deal with the matter informally, where this approach is usually limited to minor grievances. In contrast, a formal grievance is where an employee puts the matter in writing, in response to which an employer should follow their formal grievance procedures. A formal approach will be required for more serious or ongoing complaints, for example, where an informal approach has not worked, or even for minor issues but the employee would prefer the matter to be dealt with formally.
If an employee has a grievance at work, it is generally recommended that they raise this first informally. A concern or complaint could be taken up with either their boss, line manager, team leader, someone from HR, or even someone from payroll, for example, where the matter relates to a salary discrepancy. However, the employer should take the matter seriously, even if a grievance is made verbally on an informal basis, so as to maintain a good working relationship with the employee and avoid a formal grievance procedure.
Whilst employers should be open to resolving problems quickly in an informal way, equally, they may need to escalate the matter into a formal grievance if the problem raised or the complaint made is especially serious or ongoing. This could be a serious one-off incident or any recurring complaint which has not been previously resolved informally.
In circumstances where the matter is to be handled informally, there are various possible options available to the employer as to how to deal with this. For example, where a complaint has been made about another member of staff, that individual’s line manager or team leader could be asked to have a quiet word with them. That individual could also be given a verbal warning and even asked, if appropriate, to apologise to the complainant.
In the context of any complaint about something that the employer has or has not done, the employer may be able to offer to rectify the problem, either immediately or as soon as possible, providing the complainant with an explanation and an apology. However, solving the problem should be a two-way process, so that the employer allows the employee to explain the basis of their grievance and what they would like to be done about it, and the employee also listens to what the employer has to say as to what can be done.
In all cases, regardless of the way in which an informal grievance is handled, the employer must retain a record of the nature of the complaint, how this was dealt with and the outcome. This is because an informal grievance, where ineffective in fully resolving a matter, may need to be escalated into a formal grievance. Equally, a grievance can just as easily escalate into a claim before the employment tribunal, so it is important that a paper trial is maintained of what has happened and what steps have been taken by the employer.
At the conclusion of an informal grievance, the employer should also follow up on the matter shortly after. They should ask the employee if the problem is now resolved for them. If the answer is in the negative, the employer will need to explore what has happened subsequently and why the informal procedure has not been effective, together with what else can be done. The employee should also be reminded that they may need to put the matter in writing, so that a formal grievance procedure can be instigated.
If an employee has a serious or ongoing grievance at work, they should be encouraged to put this in writing. In this way, the employer can instigate its formal grievance procedure to deal with the matter appropriately. Once a written complaint has been made, the employer is duty bound to follow a formal grievance procedure, investigating the matter in full, and providing the employee with a written outcome and the right of appeal.
All employers must have in place a written policy and process when it comes to lodging a formal grievance. This should provide employees with clear and comprehensible guidance on the steps to be taken when making a complaint in writing, and what they can expect to happen, both procedurally and in terms of the possible grievance outcomes. The procedure adopted must, as an absolute minimum, follow the guidance as set out in the Acas Code of Practice on disciplinary and grievance procedures. This Code sets out the procedure that both employer and employee should follow when raising and resolving a formal grievance, including basic requirements of fairness and reasonable behaviour within this context.
In circumstances where the employer fails to follow a full and fair procedure in accordance with the Acas Code of Practice, this is not only more likely to lead to a tribunal claim, but it can also affect the outcome if things reach an employment tribunal. In particular, if the tribunal feels that an employer has unreasonably failed to comply with any provision of the Code, it has the power to increase an award they have made by up to 25%. Equally, however, where an employee fails to raise a formal written grievance before making a tribunal claim, any failure to do so may result in a reduction in any award of damages.
The practical guidance provided under the Acas Code is not weighted in favour of the complainant, but rather it is about creating fairness all round, in respect of both the person lodging a formal complaint and the person or people against whom any allegations have been made. This means that, in all formal grievances, the employer should:
- conduct the necessary investigations to establish the facts
- raise and deal with issues promptly, where the employer should arrange for a grievance hearing ideally within 5 working days
- give the complainant an opportunity to explain their grievance in detail and outline what steps they would like to be taken to address this
- allow employees to be accompanied at any grievance hearing, where the employee has a right to be accompanied, on reasonable request, in respect of any hearing dealing with a complaint about a statutory or contractual duty owed by the employer to the employee
- not unreasonably delay in making and confirming a decision following a grievance hearing, where the employer should provide the employee with a written outcome as soon as possible, normally within 24 hours of that hearing
- where further information is needed before making a decision, for example, where others are involved and evidence needs to be gathered from all sides, the employee should be informed of this without delay and told of the likely timescales involved
- when making a decision following a grievance investigation and hearing, always act consistently with previous decisions around similar grievances
- allow an employee to appeal against any formal grievance decision made, either where they feel that the outcome is unlikely to resolve the problem, or that any stage of the grievance procedure undertaken by the employer was wrong or unfair.
Grievance procedure: steps to follow
Employers should have a grievance policy in place to enable employees to understand how to make work-related complaints, and to support managers in handling such issues effectively.
The policy should be kept up to date and made accessible to all members of staff, for instance, included in the Staff Handbook.
The policy should also outline the procedure for making and handling a grievance.
For employers, it is important to ensure their grievance procedure is followed fully and correctly when dealing with employee complaints. The Acas Code of Practice outlines the procedure that both employers and employees should follow when dealing with a grievance at work. While the Acas Code is not legally binding, it is considered best practice. In the event of a tribunal claim, the tribunal can take into consideration whether the employer followed the recommended guidance under the Code when making an award, which can result in an increase in the amount of compensation paid to an employee.
In brief, the grievance procedure should include the following steps:
- Employees should be encouraged to raise the issue informally in the first instance, if appropriate.
- If the matter is not resolved, the employee submits a grievance letter to their employer.
- The employer investigates the grievance.
- A grievance hearing is held.
- A decision is made and resulting action taken.
- If necessary, the employee makes an appeal.
- There is an appeal hearing.
- The appeal decision is made.
Employers should also ensure that all relevant members of staff are fully trained in how to handle a grievance in consideration of the grievance procedure and the Acas Code of Practice. This will help to mitigate legal risk while supporting positive employee relations.
Step 1: Responding to a grievance letter
The first step in a grievance procedure, where the employee has raised the issue informally (if appropriate) without a satisfactory outcome, is for the employee to write a grievance letter. This should detail the nature of their complaint and provide any evidence in support.
Once received, the employer should respond to the employee confirming receipt of the letter. The response should also provide assurance that the matter will be investigated, and outline what will happen next, including timelines.
Step 2: Investigation
A fair process requires a full consideration of the facts relating to the complaint. To determine the facts, the employer should conduct an investigation.
The investigation should be carried out by a member of staff who is not involved in the complaint. Depending on the size of the business, this may fall to a member of the HR department, an unrelated manager or the business owner themselves. For smaller companies, it may require an external professional to be commissioned, to ensure the investigation remains objective and fair for all parties concerned.
A written record should be kept of all information gathered, contact and communications with all parties, be that the employee, other staff member or source of specialist knowledge, decisions reached, actions taken and the response of the employee who raised the grievance. Any personal information should be kept confidential to protect the rights of all concerned.
It is important to remember that the investigation is a fact-finding exercise in advance of the grievance hearing. Conclusions and decisions should be delayed until all evidence has been gathered and discussed with the complainant employee at the grievance hearing.
Where the grievance could result in disciplinary action being taken against another member of staff, it is advisable to delay such action until the investigation is complete and the grievance hearing has been held.
Where the grievance is ‘between’ members of staff who come into contact with each other at work and the situation could worsen or be uncomfortable during the investigation, for instance, an alleged bullying, it may be that adjustments can be made so that contact is reduced or removed altogether until the grievance hearing is held. Suspension may be considered but it must be made clear that this does not constitute disciplinary action. Employers are advised to take professional advice if considering suspending an employee due to a grievance.
During the investigation, the employer may conclude that the complaint can be resolved without further formal action if there is agreement with the employee and this action is seen as fair to all concerned.
Should it be decided that there is a case for the grievance to be upheld, the next stage would be the grievance hearing.
Step 3: Grievance hearing
At the grievance hearing, all evidence and statements should be examined to allow the employer to decide on the grievance outcome.
Copies of all relevant documents, including statements, should be provided to the employee before the hearing. The employee may ask their witnesses to attend the hearing. The employer may also call witnesses to the hearing.
The grievance hearing should be held in a private room where there will be no interruptions.
Notes should be taken during the hearing. The employee should be asked to review the notes and sign and date a copy at the end of the meeting as a record of their contemporaneous agreement.
The hearing process would usually be structured per the following format:
- Introduction those attending the hearing (employee who raised the grievance, employer, witnesses, etc).
- The employee states their grievance and the manner in which they wish the complaint to be resolved.
- The employee submits any evidence to support their grievance.
- Witness statements and questioning of the witnesses.
- If the employee has brought a companion or representative to the hearing, that person will be given the opportunity to question the witnesses, make a statement and discuss the case with the employer. However, they may not be questioned by the employee.
- In summary, the individual responsible for deciding the outcome of the grievance should outline the evidence and main points to confirm agreement with all parties. If there is insufficient evidence, or contradictory evidence, the hearing may be adjourned until either of these situations are resolved.
- The decision may be reserved, that is, delayed while the evidence is considered. If this happens, the employee will be told when to expect a decision. Alternatively, a decision may be reached at the end of the hearing and made known. If the decision is made to uphold the grievance, the employer’s next step is to take action to resolve the grievance.
Step 4: Grievance outcome
After a formal grievance procedure, the employer should decide on what is fair and reasonable based on the findings from their investigation(s) and the hearing, as well as what decisions have been made in any similar cases in the workplace.
If a grievance is upheld, further steps may need to be taken to resolve the matter complained of, for example, taking disciplinary action against another employee where allegations have been raised against them. The employer may also need to take steps to address any matters for which they are directly responsible, for example, discharging any arrears of pay or making changes to the complainant’s working conditions. If the employer decides that no action is needed, an adequate explanation must be given to the employee.
Finally, the employer must keep a record of the grievance and its outcome, including the employee’s complaint, the decisions made, the actions taken and the reasons for this.
Common examples of grievance outcomes
An employee might want to raise a grievance about things that they are being asked to do as part of their job, any change in their contractual terms and conditions that has not been agreed, or the way that they are being treated at work, including bullying and harassment. A grievance at work can therefore relate to any concern, problem or complaint about an employee’s working conditions or working environment, or someone an employee works with, such as a co-worker or manager, that has made them feel unfairly treated.
Below we set out examples of grievance outcomes in relation to two common types of workplace issues: an issue about pay and a complaint about harassment.
An issue about pay
Disputes commonly arise over late payment of wages, outstanding holiday pay, and unpaid bonuses and commission. In many cases, discrepancies may be down to a simple administrative error or oversight that can be easily and informally dealt with via payroll. However, where there is a substantive disagreement as to what an employee is entitled to be paid, this type of issue can quickly escalate into a formal grievance. In these circumstances, the employer will need to ascertain where any discrepancy has arisen and decide what to do about this. The employer can either agree to uphold the complaint and immediately pay any outstanding sum owed to the employee or continue to dispute the matter. However, if the grievance cannot be resolved internally, this could quickly lead to a claim for unlawful deduction of wages or breach of contract.
A complaint about harassment
Allegations of unwanted conduct at work often relate to the behaviour of co-workers, although the employer is still responsible for taking reasonable steps to prevent or eradicate unlawful conduct in the workplace. Harassment is a serious matter, where disciplinary proceedings may need to be taken against the perpetrator if a grievance has been upheld. This can then result in the employer issuing a written warning, or even making a decision to dismiss the person responsible. If the matter is not resolved, the complainant may be able to bring a claim for discrimination against both the perpetrator and the employer, where harassment is essentially a form of bullying related to a protected characteristic, such as the complainant’s age, sex or beliefs.
Step 5: Grievance outcome letter
Following a grievance hearing, the employer’s decision and the outcome of that hearing must be set out in writing. Regardless of whether the grievance is upheld or rejected, the employer must set out the reasons for their decision and, where appropriate, the steps that will be taken. The employer must also inform the employee of their right to appeal. The employee can appeal a grievance outcome if they feel that the action decided upon will not resolve the problem, or that any stage of the grievance procedure was wrong or unfair.
The contents of a grievance outcome letter will very much depend on the nature of the complaint and the findings made by the employer, but it must be set out in clear and comprehensible terms. It must also only state the facts, not unfounded statements, that can be backed up by evidence. Even if the outcome is unfavourable to the employee, if they can understand why that decision has been reached, they are less likely to challenge this.
Step 6: Appeals process
Following a grievance hearing, an employee has the right to challenge an employer’s decision. When you write to them with your decision, you must advise of their right to appeal, including the timeframes in which they can make their appeal against the grievance outcome.
Should the decision be made not to uphold the grievance, the employee has the right to appeal this decision. They may also appeal against any part of the grievance process that they believe was unfair or incorrect. Their appeal should be made in writing.
An appeal meeting is held and the employer makes a final decision.
Should the employee remain unhappy with the decision, their options may include resigning and claiming constructive dismissal.
If the employee decides to appeal, you must make every effort to arrange the hearing without undue delay.
Preparing for the appeals hearing
Prior to a hearing on an appeal:
- To be sure you are following your grievance procedure correctly, read it again.
- Make sure you have all necessary information and records, particularly if new evidence has come to light since the initial hearing.
- Make arrangements for someone to take notes during the hearing.
- Plan an appropriate time and location for the appeal hearing.
- Give the employee plenty of advance notice so they can gather evidence and consult with any representatives. Remind them that they are allowed to attend the hearing with a friend, coworker, or trade union official (who may be either a full-time official employed by a union or a lay union official who has been reasonably certified in writing by their union as having experience acting as a worker’s companion, or as having received training in acting in that capacity).
- Interviewing any manager and/or witnesses may be essential if the appeal involves fresh evidence. This could include getting more statements.
- Avoid any delays in arranging the appeal hearing. Offer the employee an acceptable day and time as a substitute if they are legitimately unable to attend the appeal hearing, such as due to illness. The employee must suggest a different date and time no later than five working days following your suggested date if the employee’s partner is unable to attend the rescheduled hearing. You must provide the employee with an alternate hearing date and time if you are unable to attend the rescheduled hearing.
Conducting the appeal hearing
The same general principles apply for the appeal hearing as with the initial grievance hearing, with a couple of additional considerations. The appeal hearing should also specifically consider the reasoning behind the appeal and any new evidence that has emerged since the earlier decision.
It is advisable for the appeal hearing to be led by someone different to the initial hearing; preferably a senior figure in the organisation who has not been involved in the grievance process, so as to avoid any allegations of bias. However, if the individual hearing the appeal is the same individual who heard the initial hearing, they should exercise objectivity and make sure they thoroughly and objectively scrutinise the initial decision.
As soon as possible following the hearing, you should write to the employee with your decision and the justification for it.
In the event that the employee does not show up for the rescheduled hearing, the process is over, and you can make your decision at that time. Remember that you must still inform the employee of the decision in writing.
In the event that the appeals procedure is delayed, it is crucial to let the employee know as soon as feasible. If you don’t, a tribunal may raise the amount of any compensation against you.
One of the most important factors when handling a grievance, and possibly the easiest to overlook, is keeping the employee updated while their grievance is investigated. A lack of communication could lead to your employee feeling that their grievance has not been taken seriously. Regular, constructive contact will help to maintain a better working relationship with your employee.
Where other members of staff are involved in the grievance, for instance, where a complaint has been made against them, communication should also be maintained with that person.
A record of any contact relating to the grievance, whether with the initiating employee, a related employee or professional advice, such as occupational health, should be maintained throughout the process.
Alternative dispute resolution
In some cases, the employer and employee may decide that it would be advantageous to enlist a third party in the dispute resolution process, such as mediation to help the parties arrive to a mutually agreeable solution. The grievance process may be temporarily halted in such cases. The grievance procedure should specify where and when mediators may be utilised in this situation.
DavidsonMorris’ employment lawyers can help with all manner of workforce management issues, including advice on handling workplace complaints and resolving potential disputes. Working closely with our specialist HR consultants, we provide comprehensive guidance covering both the legal and HR aspects of workplace dispute resolution processes. For help and advice, speak to our experts.
Grievance procedure FAQs
What are the steps in the grievance procedure?
Step 1 - raise the issue informally with the employer. Step 2 – raise the issue formally with a grievance letter. Step 3 - grievance investigation should take place. Step 4 - a grievance hearing may be required to review the evidence and for a decision to be made. Step 5 - the employee has the right to appeal the grievance outcome.
How long goes a grievance take?
The grievance procedure can vary in length, depending for example on the complexity of the issue and the number of parties involved. Typically, it cold be around 4 weeks from the grievance letter to the grievance hearing, to allow for the investigation stage.
What if a grievance is ignored?
If an employer fails to act on a grievance, the employee may resign and be able to bring a claim constructive dismissal.
What is a good example of grievance?
There are various different examples of common grievances, from complaints about pay and working conditions, to complaints about the conduct of others, such as bullying and harassment.
What can be the outcome of a grievance?
The outcome of a grievance could be that the grievance is upheld and steps will be taken to rectify the matter, for example, any unlawful deduction in wages will be settled with immediate effect.
Who gets the grievance outcome letter?
A grievance outcome letter should be given to the complainant, ie; the employee who has made the grievance. This should explain the outcome of any grievance hearing, the reasons for this and any steps that will be taken.
What happens after a grievance is upheld?
If a grievance about a co-worker is upheld, the employer may need to instigate disciplinary proceedings against that person. If the grievance relates to the employer’s own conduct, any wrongdoing must be rectified as soon as possible.
Last updated: 27 November 2022