The most common employee grievances concern working hours, holiday, pay reviews, working conditions, or fellow employees, who may be harassing, victimising, bullying or discriminating against the employee.

There is an implied term in every employment contract that the employer must reasonably and promptly afford the employee an opportunity to obtain redress of grievances. Every employer should ideally have a written procedure which an employee can use for any employment-related grievance. While it is preferable to have a separate harassment and discrimination policy, it may be more convenient to build a sensitive complaints element into the grievance procedure to take such matters into account.

What should a grievance procedure contain?

The statutory minimum requirement is that any statement of particulars of employment must include a note specifying the person to whom the employee can apply to seek redress of a grievance, and the manner in which they should apply. The procedure should be non-contractual, so that it can be altered from time to time without breaching the employment contract. If the procedure is referred to but not contained in the contract, then an employee should be informed of where he or she can inspect a copy.

Where size and resources permit, Acas recommends a three-stage procedure. However, for senior directors and small businesses, a one or two-stage procedure may be more practicable. In a three stage procedure, the employee should put his grievance in writing to the individual who will be dealing with grievances – perhaps the employee’s line manager. This individual should call a formal meeting within a reasonable period (say five working days) where the grievance will be discussed, and at which the employee may be accompanied by a work colleague or trade union representative.

If the employee is not satisfied with the outcome, a right of appeal – in writing – should go to a higher-ranking individual, such as a director. If the grievance is still not resolved, the employee should be able to raise it with the chief executive, managing director or an authorised deputy, and a third hearing should take place.

Dealing with the grievance

All grievances should be treated in confidence. The employee should be given reasonable notice of a hearing, which must be postponed if the employee or his companion will be unavailable at the suggested time. Full minutes should be taken and the chairperson should make every effort to be impartial. The Equal Opportunities Commission recommends that particular care is taken when dealing with discrimination or harassment complaints.

After each hearing, the employer should hold a second meeting to say what action will be taken, or promptly notify the formal response in writing. The employee should have the right to be accompanied at this meeting. It may be prudent to have a different panel of persons to whom sensitive complaints can be made, perhaps consisting of mixed race/sex groups. Ideally the accuser and accused should be kept separate if possible during the investigation. Where the grievance concerns a fellow employee, the latter may become subject to disciplinary proceedings. A full investigation should be carried out before any disciplinary action is taken.

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