Grievances – what employers need to know to avoid or deal with them

The 2010 IRS survey on individual dispute resolution, published exclusively by XpertHR, should make interesting reading for HR directors worried about the possibility of rising numbers of employee grievances.

Perhaps the most striking fact is the high number of cases concerned with managerial relationships in the workplace. Poor working relationships between line managers and employees accounted for 77% of workplace disputes, according to the survey of 197 employers (see box, below).

Individual dispute resolution: significant findings

  • 75% of organisations surveyed dealt with bullying and harassment claims at least occasionally. 72% highlighted relationships between colleagues as a common problem.
  • Almost 40% saw grievances about pay at least occasionally, with 32% experiencing issues relating to working hours, and 30% regarding non-pay terms and conditions.
  • Instances of grievances about race (30%), sex (27%) and disability (27%) were also far from infrequent occurrences. “For almost one in three organisations to report that grievances relating to race discrimination and a quarter in sex discrimination are reported frequently or occasionally is worrying,” says Rachel Suff, XpertHR editor and author of the report.
  • Age discrimination claims are also starting to filter through, with 16% of companies now seeing these on an occasional or frequent basis.
  • More than three-quarters (77%) of respondents agreed the new Acas code of practice made it easier to handle individual dispute resolutions, but just three out of the 197 respondents had used Acas’ pre-claim conciliation service.

Source: IRS

This doesn’t surprise Gavin Wright, HR director at Hampshire County Council – particularly with the stronger focus in the current climate on performance management.

“If a manager is questioning someone about whether they have achieved their key objectives when they had never done so previously, it can translate for some staff into thinking they are being bullied or harassed,” he says. “We have to make sure every­body is aware of that shift in emphasis.”

Sean Wheeler, group director, people and development at Malmaison and Hotel Du Vin, has seen a rise in cases relating directly to line managers. “There really is no slack any more, so everyone has got to perform,” he says. “Most companies have trimmed down their employee base, so everyone has to step up to the plate. Some are finding that really challenging.”

Tighten up and reduce costs

The recession has also created other forms of grievance as companies look to tighten up procedures and reduce costs. Louisa Hogarty, head of operational HR at food travel business SSP, has seen an increase in cases relating to enforcing company policy about the use of taxis for staff on late-night shifts. A proposal in one region for staff to work four fewer hours per week to avoid the need for redundancies was also a source of grievances.

According to Ben Willmott, senior public policy adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), HR has a key role to play in helping line managers spot the causes of possible grievances before they become an issue.

“Managers are increasingly shying away from managing conflict in the workplace in case they do or say something that could be held against them in any formal proceedings,” he says. “HR needs to ensure it has the confidence to identify the early warning signs that all is not well.”

How to avoid grievances

  • Communicate the need for staff to take on additional responsibilities and for tightening up of existing policies
  • Introduce a culture where over-performance is recognised by line managers
  • Ensure line managers are trained to identify and handle possible grievances at an early stage
  • Hold regular, informal meetings with those showing signs of stress or harassment to ensure issues do not progress to grievances
  • Suggest mediation as a means of settling disputes ahead of a formal grievance
  • Assess softer skills in line manager appraisals and directly link these to pay where possible.

      Source: Acas

      “The key here lies in education, training, and increasing the confidence of line managers to deal with problems,” adds Ron Woods, assistant director for individual conciliation at Acas. “We shouldn’t underestimate how challenging this is for first- and second-line managers. HR has a crucial role in increasing the confidence of managers to address problems earlier, and by sourcing training to give managers the tools to deal with these issues.”

      Encouraging results

      At Malmaison and Hotel Du Vin, Wheeler recently ran a survey aimed at identifying whether staff felt they were being bullied. The results were encouraging – only 1% felt there might be an issue, and many of those weren’t sure – but it also highlighted a potential cause for concern.

      “Only 45% felt their managers ever gave them positive feedback,” he says. “We’re now educating managers about the importance of that and how it can be given. It doesn’t necessarily have to be costly – a ‘thank you’ goes a long way.”

      Wright, meanwhile, has placed more emphasis on providing in-house mediation to address issues before they become grievances. He says: “My heart always sinks when I hear a grievance comes in because nine times out of 10 you don’t get a satisfactory outcome.

      “We’ve trained our own in-house team as mediators and we also have an employment support helpline which consists of trained counsellors, and we’ve trained them as mediators as well. We don’t make it a formal requirement, but we do suggest it.”

      Using softer skills to approach performance issues is also vital in ensuring they do not escalate into grievances, says Willmott. He suggests holding regular, informal, one-to-one discussions with those affected, outlining the issues and providing examples before offering tips about how to improve performance or avoid certain situations. “If it’s a performance issue, find out what the root cause is, whether it’s a training or workload issue or whether there is something happening in their life outside work that’s creating a problem,” he says.

      At Hampshire County Council, meanwhile, HR is playing a key role around training line managers in how to work with people and deal with difficult issues, and these softer skills now form part of managers’ own performance assessments.

      “If you start putting it in appraisals, particularly if it’s linked to pay, then people sit up and listen to that a lot more than they would otherwise,” says Wright.

      The impact of a culture of grievances on an organisation can be significant. A recent survey by the CIPD found an average of 13 days worth of management time were wasted per disciplinary, and nine days for every grievance, while research by psychometrics provider OPP claims workplace conflict takes up about a day a month for each employee.

      “Poorly managed conflict really does have a negative impact on productivity,” says Willmott. “We know that conflict is a major cause of stress and will also lead to staff in some organisations voting with their feet and leaving.”

      Welcome changes

      The IRS survey also suggested HR practitioners have broadly welcomed the changes made to the Acas code of conduct a year ago, which were designed to create a less formal process for HR to follow and put a greater emphasis on mediation.

      But the fact that only one in 10 grievances was handled without recourse to a formal procedure suggests that many companies may still be reluctant to move away from the old approach.

      “If we have any complaint in writing we still follow the old-style process, and that’s more because of a fear that, as an organisation, if we didn’t we’d be reprimanded further down the line,” admits Hogarty at SSP. “It’s easier when you get to tribunals and mediation because they can’t say you didn’t take that complaint seriously enough. But when you’re dealing with 10,000 people, it’s quite a fair way as well.”

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