It is not unusual for an employee to raise a grievance during their employment. However, this can become the default position, often when the working relationship breaks down. We consider some practical steps for employers to take when this occurs.
What is a grievance?
The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) defines a grievance widely as any complaint, concern or problem that an employee wishes to raise with their employer. A grievance can be a useful means of resolving many workplace issues when used appropriately, following a clear company policy. However, it is not uncommon for an employer to become faced with an employee who continually raises grievances in an unreasonable or excessively persistent manner. This can place a huge burden on managers and human resources professionals in terms of the time involved, which is unproductive and can drain morale.
What preventative steps can be taken?
It is important to deal with any grievance raised in accordance with internal company policies as well as the ACAS Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures (the Code). For example, every grievance should be treated with respect and considered independently. It is advisable to attempt to resolve the issue informally with the employee in question first, before moving to the formal process. Where there has been no success at resolving a complaint internally, the ACAS Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures recommends employers consider mediation, as bringing in an external third party may help to ease any tensions between the employer and employee. In this way, it may be possible to resolve issues satisfactorily and minimise the risk of receiving serial grievances.
If there is concern that a complaint is not genuine, the employer should carefully consider whether the complaint is unfounded and why they believe this to be the case. For instance, is it made dishonestly or maliciously as opposed to through a mistake or misunderstanding? If the latter, then a simple informal discussion may be able to resolve matters. If the former, then it may be appropriate to refuse to hear the grievance, and/or take disciplinary action in extreme cases. This may occur where an employee persistently raises grievances against one particular colleague with a malicious intention.
Employers may also invite staff or their trade union representatives to participate in grievance policy reviews as good practice, to encourage buy-in to the process and to ensure that employees are familiar with what is expected of them. It is also important to train managers in how to recognise and deal with grievance situations promptly.
What can be done to reduce the strain placed upon managers / human resources?
It is important that employers act reasonably at all times, dealing with grievances promptly and thoroughly in order to comply with the Code. However, this does not mean that employers are obligated to respond in detail, or even at all, to numerous repetitive complaints, if it would be unreasonable to expect them to do so.
The important thing is to consider the content of the grievance to decide whether it is appropriate to respond to it or not. For example, if a company receives a mixture of both reasonable and unreasonable complaints, then only those points which warrant a reply should be addressed, and an explanation given as to why the other points are not being considered. This applies regardless of whether they are contained in the same piece of correspondence or sent separately.
In some cases, an employer may face repetitive claims regarding the same issue. In such situations, an employer is entitled to politely remind the employee that they have a right to appeal the employer’s decision not to simply repeat their complaint. If an appeal has already taken place unsuccessfully, the employer can inform the employee that they have exhausted the internal grievance procedure. There is no obligation after this point for a manager or HR manager to continue to respond to complaints where there is no new information given. The employer may record the information and inform the employee that no further replies will be provided.
Employers may also struggle with repetitious complaints that generally involve similar issues. As before, this will be a judgement call as to whether the new information can be amalgamated with the current complaint to increase efficiency or whether the new facts are so different that they need to be considered and dealt with separately.
The final category of grievance is potentially the most time-consuming to handle. This is where the same employee makes numerous complaints covering a range of different issues, all involving new material. In cases such as this, it is helpful to investigate the circumstances around the grievance being raised, as in practice this could be an indication of a more complex issue than was originally considered. Identifying the root cause of the employee’s concern is the most likely method to be successful in reducing the volume of grievances received. While it is important to address grievances promptly, employers should not be too hasty in rushing into a particular course of action without first considering their options.
It is worth noting that an employer is not obligated to respond to every grievance if it may be considered as insignificant. This may include where the issue raised is trivial or does not give rise to any type of injustice against the employee. The employer can even elect to inform the employee that no action will be taken, in rare cases. However, taking no action towards a complaint should not stem from a disregard of the employee’s concern. It should be a last resort in response to a genuinely vexatious employee.
It may help to provide any serial grievance raisers with one point of contact for all enquiries - for instance, a human resources manager or someone in a similar role. This will help to ensure that no issues are left unanswered and may also help the employee to feel as if their complaints are being taken seriously, thereby reducing their need to continue to raise concerns.