Do traditional grievance procedures destroy relationships?


HR professionals have relied on formal grievance procedures for years, but are they still fit for purpose? In an extract from his new book, Managing Conflict, David Liddle argues that resolution policies, rather than traditional grievance procedures, have a better chance of achieving harmony in the workplace.

For many HR personnel, managers and union representatives, the grievance procedure provides a road map for managing disputes.

However, experienced HR professionals, union reps and managers will do all they can to avoid the grievance procedure.

They know it will be bruising and damaging so they make valiant attempts to resolve issues outside of the formal grievance process, applying a set of discretionary behaviours and activities.

This refusal to use the very process designed for resolving disputes is a damning indictment of that process – from people who know what they are doing.

Surely, as I have been told numerous times, one benefit of the traditional grievance procedure is that it provides consistency.

Well, it does for some poor unsuspecting souls who are consistently stressed, harmed and damaged by it.

But for those seasoned HR professionals, union reps and managers who know just how damaging and stressful the grievance procedure really is, it is actually promoting discretionary activity. I celebrate such discretionary activity, if it leads to a resolution.

Surely discretionary activity is one of the biggest causes of inconsistency, which the grievance procedure exists to resolve. That’s a paradox. Here’s another paradox, which I call the HR paradox.

The HR paradox

The modern HR professional’s role is to act as a strategic partner to the organisation.

The role includes finding, hiring and retaining top talent, creating meaningful reward systems, generating effective appraisal or review systems, embedding HR as a strategic function at the very top of the organization, aligning the workforce to the values, vision and strategy of the organisation and vice versa, delivering effective internal communications and employee engagement activities, understanding the learning and development needs of the workforce, etc.

The reality for many employees, and particularly those in conflict, is not quite as positive or strategic.

HR departments are viewed as the custodians of a policy suite that sends shivers down the spines of most employees and managers: a policy suite that promotes blame, division, confrontation, negativity, fear, betrayal, stress and antagonism.

“I will go to HR” or “I will take a grievance out against you” is used as an existential threat against a colleague or a manager. HR, in these cases, become the Sword of Damocles hanging above people’s heads. For many employees, the HR function is seen as the controlling parent, the police officer or the authoritarian arm of management.

Therein lies the HR paradox. On the one hand, HR is an enabler and a strategic partner; on the other, HR and its associated rules and regulations is perceived as a threat.

Put resolution at the heart

At the heart of the HR paradox lies the grievance procedure. However, there is good news. It is possible to change and it is possible to reject the old paradigms and begin to embrace a new approach for managing conflict at work. Instead of focusing on the grievance, focus on the outcome – resolution. It really is that simple.

Newham Council in east London is an organisation that has made the transition to a resolution policy as an alternative to the traditional grievance and anti-bullying policies.

Catherine Anderson, organisational development manager at oneSource (which provides the back-office functions at the London Boroughs of Newham and Havering) expands:

“Anything that diverts a grievance is worth doing. They just take up too much time and they certainly, as far as I’ve seen, are completely ineffective,” she says. “It’s so important to get people to sit down and talk and that is the main thing that the resolution policy does. Our aim is to make dialogue the normal way for people to resolve an issue.

“Like if you had an issue in your family or with a friend or with a neighbour, I would like to think most people – well first thing you would do would be to have a chat. I don’t know why we don’t do that at work. It just makes good sense.

“The unions were fully on board as they knew that we had retained the formal elements of the old grievance procedure as well as promoting new routes to resolution for our employees. I suppose that you could say that we have lost nothing but we have gained absolutely everything. It’s early days for the resolution policy but since it’s been introduced (six months ago) there hasn’t been a single grievance.”

The benefits of a resolution policy

Clearly, there is an urgent need for a radical rethink of dispute resolution within our organisations.

We need a new vernacular to define the issues and we urgently need a new way to handle and resolve conflicts and disputes. The resolution policy promotes and encourages positive relationships and constructive dialogue. It’s about leaders and managers walking the talk.

The focus of this new approach is on resolution rather than retribution, peace rather than polarisation, dialogue rather than division.

What makes a resolution policy so effective?

  • It links dispute resolution with your values and vision
  • It promotes and actively encourages positive and constructive behaviours in the workplace
  • It replaces your existing grievance and bullying and harassment policies with a single resolution policy
  • Employees, employers and unions can work collaboratively to achieve constructive resolutions
  • It develops a conflict-resilient workplace
  • It integrates the values and principles of mediation in your organisation – mutual respect, openness, collaboration, fairness
  • It gives control and responsibility for resolution directly to your employees and managers
  • There is a significant emphasis on mediation and early resolution
  • It takes the grief out of grievances
  • It makes empathy, dignity and respect explicit features of dispute resolution
  • It reduces the amount of time HR professionals and managers spend on grievance case management
  • It will help your organisation to transition from a grievance culture to a resolution culture
  • It includes a comprehensive resolution triage process that HR and ER professionals can use
  • It is fully compliant with the Acas disciplinary and grievance code of practice
  • In more serious disputes, it offers the opportunity to escalate an investigation or other formal action
  • It gives greater control and offers greater flexibility to all parties
  • It supports return to work procedures following absence or suspension

This is an edited extract from Managing Conflict by David Liddle, ©2018 and reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd.

David Liddle

About David Liddle

David Liddle is CEO of The TCM Group
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