Even in well-run businesses, it may sometimes be necessary to deal with employee grievances.
Therefore it's crucial that you have written grievance procedures. If problems do arise, these procedures should help you and your employee resolve them within the workplace. They should also ensure that you deal with employee grievances fairly.
Your rules and procedures should be set out in writing and follow the good-practice principles set out in the Labour Relations Agency (LRA) code of practice on disciplinary and grievance procedures.
Failure to meet either of these requirements may result in extra compensation for the employee if they succeed in a tribunal claim.
This guide outlines what you need to include in your procedures and how to handle grievances issues in practice.
Grievance procedures and the employment contract
By law, you must inform each employee of:
- the name of the person to whom they should apply to seek redress for a grievance
- how they should make this application
This information can be included in the employee's written statement of employment or the written statement may refer the employee to a document where they may find it, eg in a staff handbook.
If you fail to provide this information to an employee, and they succeed in another industrial tribunal claim against you, eg unlawful discrimination, they could be awarded two or four weeks' pay for this lapse.
The contractual status of grievance procedures
Your grievance procedure may not form part of an employment contract. Therefore, an employee may not be able to claim breach of contract if you fail to follow it. If there is a dispute over this, it will be up to an industrial tribunal to decide on the outcome.
However, if you do choose to make your procedure contractual and you fail to follow it when dealing with a grievance, the employee could bring a breach of contract claim against you.
Read more on the employment contract.
Writing your grievance procedure
If an employee has concerns or complaints about their work, employment terms, working conditions or relationships with colleagues, they may want to discuss them or bring them to your attention. They will then want you to address and, if possible, resolve these grievances.
The best way to do this is to have a grievance procedure. If it deals with grievances in a fair and reasonable manner, you're much less likely to lose valued and skilled staff through resignation. It will also help you successfully defend any industrial tribunal claim for:
- constructive dismissal - see dismissing employees
- unlawful discrimination - see how to prevent discrimination and value diversity
The duty to provide a grievance procedure
You should provide each of your employees with a written grievance procedure. Your procedure should - at the very least - follow the good practice principles set out in the Labour Relations Agency (LRA) code of practice on disciplinary and grievance procedures.
If you unreasonably fail to follow the code and the issue ends up at an industrial tribunal, the tribunal could increase the employee's compensation by up to 50 per cent.
The content of a grievance procedure
The exact nature of your procedure will depend on the size and structure of your organisation.
However, any grievance procedure should:
- Be simple and easy to follow.
- Allow for proceedings to be kept confidential.
- Aim to settle grievances fairly and quickly.
- State how and with whom to raise the grievance in the first place.
- Indicate that you will try to resolve most grievances informally, eg by discussions with the employee's immediate manager.
- Identify an alternative person with whom a grievance should be raised if the usual person is the subject of the grievance. For example, if the line manager is the person with whom grievances should be first raised but they are the subject of the grievance, the procedure should name someone else, eg the line manager's manager.
- Set out to whom the employee should appeal if they are not satisfied with the outcome of the initial grievance hearing - see appeals against grievance decisions.
- State that, if possible, a manager previously uninvolved in the matter will hear the appeal.
- Give time limits for each stage, particularly for lodging and hearing the appeal.
- Mention that the employee has the right to be accompanied by a colleague or union representative at any meeting.
Consulting employees on your grievance procedure
You should involve your employees and, where appropriate, their representatives, when putting together your grievance procedure.
If you have any workplace representatives, it may be advisable for you to carry out this consultation through them, ie either with the trade union or, if there is none, elected employee representatives.
Preparing for a grievance hearing
Before you hold a grievance hearing:
- Read through your grievance procedure so that you apply it correctly.
- Read through the Labour Relations Agency (LRA) Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures.
- Carry out a full investigation if necessary, eg where the employee is accusing a colleague of sexual harassment.
- Obtain statements from any witnesses and share them with the employee.
- Make sure you have all relevant facts and documents available for the hearing.
- Arrange for someone to take notes.
- Arrange a suitable time, date and venue for the hearing.
- Give the employee plenty of notice of the meeting so they can prepare their case and consult any representatives. Remind them that they have the right to be accompanied at the hearing by a colleague or trade union official.
- Where appropriate, interview any manager or witnesses.
It may be necessary to have more than one grievance meeting when dealing with a grievance.
You may not have access to all of the information listed above before the first meeting. For example, the employee may provide you with information on witnesses at the meeting and you may need to investigate further, interview the witnesses concerned and meet again with the employee who has raised the grievance.
Holding a grievance hearing
For any grievance hearing, you should:
- ensure that it's private and won't be interrupted
- if the grievance concerns a line manager, consider who else can hear the complaint
- tell the employee about the right to be accompanied
- introduce everyone and explain why they are present
- explain the reason for the hearing and how it will be conducted
- listen carefully to the person's explanation of the problem - consider whether there is another issue which might be the root cause of the grievance
- listen to any conflicting points of view
- weigh up all the evidence to see whether there is an issue you need to address
- consider adjourning the meeting if further advice or information needs to be sought
- avoid snap decisions even if the solution initially seems obvious - consider possible repercussions
It's crucial that you deal with grievances sensitively and in the strictest confidence, particularly where they concern other employees. You'll need to develop specific procedures for very sensitive claims involving unfair treatment, eg discrimination, bullying or harassment. Read more on bullying and harassment.
Making the decision
Once the hearing is over:
- decide what action to take - try to balance fairness to the person without compromising the business or other employees
- inform the person who raised the grievance and, where appropriate, any other concerned parties - in writing - of your decision and the appeal process - read more on appeals against grievance decisions
- the person who raised the grievance should be given a full explanation as to how the decision was reached
- review your grievance procedure - if this particular claim has highlighted problems
Dealing with delays
If the employee is genuinely unable to attend the grievance hearing, eg because they are ill, offer them a reasonable date and time as an alternative.
You should let your employee know that decisions may be taken in their absence if they fail to attend rearranged meetings without good reason.
If the employee's companion cannot make the rearranged hearing, the employee must propose another date and time no more than five working days after the day proposed by you.
If the employee fails to attend the rearranged hearing without good reason, this stage of the procedure is complete and you can make your decision there and then. Don't forget that you will still have to tell the employee in writing of the decision and that they have the right to appeal.
If you cannot make the rearranged hearing, you must offer the employee a reasonable alternative date and time.
Dealing with long-term absence
An employee may become anxious and stressed in the run-up to a grievance hearing, for example, if their grievance relates to another employee and they have to face this person at work. This can lead in some cases to them being absent for weeks or even months due to stress-related illness.
If this situation arises, you can ask the employee's GP and/or an occupational health specialist for a medical report. You must gain the employee's agreement before doing so.
You should ask for the report to state whether or not the worker is fit enough to attend a hearing in the near future:
- If they are deemed fit enough, you should arrange the hearing with the employee in the normal way.
- If not, you might not be able to complete the grievance procedure without unreasonable delay. In this situation, depending on the circumstances, you may be able to treat the procedure as having been completed and make a decision in the employee's absence. However, you should still tell the worker that they can supply written representation or other material if they wish.
Appeals against grievance decisions
An employee has the right to appeal against an employer's decision following the grievance hearing. You must notify them of this right when you write to give them your disciplinary decision. Give them a deadline to notify you of their intention to appeal against the grievance, eg within five working days.
If the employee chooses to appeal, you must try to hold the appeal hearing without unnecessary delay.
Preparing for an appeal hearing
Before you hold an appeal hearing:
- Read through your grievance procedure to ensure that you are applying it correctly.
- Make sure you have all relevant facts and documents, especially if you have come across new evidence since the first hearing.
- Arrange for someone to take notes.
- Arrange a suitable date and venue for the appeal hearing.
- Inform the employee in plenty of time so they can prepare their case and consult any representatives. Remind them that they have the right to be accompanied at the hearing by a colleague or trade union official.
- If the appeal concerns new evidence it may be necessary to interview any manager and/or witnesses.
- This may involve obtaining additional statements.
Holding an appeal hearing
The principles for holding an appeal hearing are generally the same as for the initial grievance hearing - read more on holding a grievance hearing.
However, at the appeal hearing, you should also consider:
- the reasoning behind the appeal
- any new evidence since the earlier decision
Ideally the person hearing the appeal shouldn't be the same person that heard the initial grievance hearing, eg a more senior manager who has not been involved with the grievance process at all. They will be able to hear any appeal without having any assumptions.
However, where the person hearing the appeal is the same person who heard the first hearing, they should act impartially and make sure they review the original decision carefully.
You should write to the employee with your decision and the reason for it as soon as possible after the hearing. Make it clear, if this is the case, that the decision is final.
Dealing with delays to appeal hearings
If the employee is genuinely unable to attend the appeal hearing, eg because they are ill, offer them a reasonable date and time as an alternative.
If the employee's companion cannot make the rearranged hearing, the employee must propose another date and time no more than five working days after your proposed date.
If the employee fails to attend the rearranged hearing, this stage of the procedure is complete and you can make your decision there and then. Don't forget that you will still have to tell the employee in writing of the decision.
If you cannot make the rearranged hearing, you must offer the employee an alternative at a reasonable date and time.
It is important that you notify the employee as soon as possible of any delays to the appeal process. If you fail to do so, an industrial tribunal could increase any compensation awarded against you.
Alternative Dispute Resolution
There may be circumstances where the employer and employee feel it would be beneficial to involve a third party to help in resolving the issue, through, for example, mediation. In such instances the grievance procedure may be temporarily set aside.
Mediation is a process whereby an independent third party intervenes in a workplace dispute to assist the parties to reach a satisfactory outcome. The Labour Relations Agency (LRA) can provide a mediation service to assist the parties. You can also contact the LRA directly on Tel 03300 555 300 for further information.