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.
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 one: 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.
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.
The appeals process
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.
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.
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.
Last updated: 27 July 2020