Some employees seem to complain about everything. The office is too cold/hot, there’s not enough space in the fridge, the supplied pens don’t write well, etc. But when an employee raises a real concern, don’t brush it off as just another complaint.
Forty-three per cent of women say they’ve been sexually harassed at work. The US government has received over 1 million employment discrimination complaints since 2010. More than 14 workers die on the job each day. When you consider these statistics, you can see that addressing employee grievances quickly, respectfully and consistently protects both your employees and your company’s reputation.
An employee grievance may lead to a human resources investigation. Learn how case management software can make your investigations faster and more effective in our free eBook.
The definition of an employee grievance varies depending on what resource you consult. According to PlusHR, “grievances are concerns, problems, or complaints that employees raise with their employers.”
BusinessDictionary, though, gives two different definitions. In legal terms, a grievance is an “injury, injustice, or wrong that affords reason for resistance or a formal expression as a complaint.” In a human resources context, on the other hand, it’s defined as a “specific complaint or formal notice of employee dissatisfaction related to adequacy of pay, job requirements, work conditions, other aspects of employment, or an alleged violation of a collective bargaining agreement.”
In essence, a grievance is any complaint or concern an employee raises with their employer with the hopes of resolving the issue.
Grievance handling in the workplace means addressing a wide range of issues. For instance, employees may file grievances concerning:
- Compensation and benefits (e.g. pay equity, salary that doesn’t match responsibility)
- Terms and conditions of employment (e.g. expected hours of work not accurately represented in contract)
- Employment and personnel policies (e.g. hiring procedures, merit-based bonus structures)
- Workload and work distribution (e.g. unfair distribution of work, no overtime pay for extra hours)
- Management-employee relations (e.g. no communication access to management)
- Heath and safety concerns (e.g. malfunctioning equipment, poor lighting in workspace)
- Bullying, harassment or discrimination (e.g. coworker stalking, hazing rituals)
- Organizational changes (e.g. moved to new department without consent)
- New workplace conditions (e.g. office moved to an inaccessible location, new office building contains allergens)
Because grievance handling covers such a variety of issues, having a streamlined management process is essential. With strong policies and procedures and an effective case management solution, you can easily handle grievances for any size of company.
Grievance Handling Steps
When addressing employee grievances, employers must work quickly to keep minor issues from turning into major problems.
Most importantly, document every step of the grievance handling process. This not only protects your organization if the employee files a lawsuit, but also assures consistency when addressing future employee grievances.
“Provide necessary written documentation, from the grievance being submitted to the grievance resolution,” suggests Dane Kolbaba, owner of Watchdog Pest Control.
Before an issue arises, make sure that you have strong grievance handling policies and procedures in place. These documents let employees know what to expect when they file a grievance. In addition, they protect your organization should the employee file a lawsuit.
Your grievance handling policy should include your organization’s definition of a grievance with examples, the scope of the policy, employees’ rights and your obligations as an employer. Include notes on an employee’s right to be accompanied or represented during the grievance handling process as well as their right to appeal decisions.
Grievance handling procedures should list processes for:
- filing a grievance
- investigating a grievance
- grievance resolution meetings
A strong grievance handling policy can streamline your grievance management as well as protect your company in the wake of a lawsuit. Use our checklist to know what to include in your policy.
Customize employee grievance filing methods to the size of your organization and your employees’ needs. You may ask employees to file a grievance directly with Human Resources or contact their manager about it first. A formal, dated grievance letter may be required. On the other hand, you might allow employees to file grievances using an online portal.
Many employers require employees to file their grievance no later than 30 days after the most recent action that caused the problem. All grievance reports should include:
- the employee’s full name
- the date of the grievance
- a summary of their complaints
- witness details
- copies of supporting documents for the investigation
- details of action steps they have taken to solve the issue, if any
- their preferred resolution
Upon receiving the grievance letter, the employer should then determine if the grievance is timely and if it fits into the scope of the company’s grievance policy. Decide if all of the information required to resolve the issue is included, too.
If your workplace is not unionized, consider asking employees to try to informally resolve their grievances before filing a formal complaint. This is not always possible, however. Still, many issues can easily be resolved between the employee and his or her manager without going through the formal grievance handling process.
Grievances of a serious nature should always be dealt with formally. Cases that concern physical safety, such as assault or a workplace hazard, should be handled quickly and professionally.
After an employee files a grievance, plan the resolution meeting for no more than five working days afterwards. Hold the meeting in a private, distraction-free environment.
Before the meeting, communicate to the employee, in writing, the meeting’s details. Include the time and date of the meeting, where it will be held and who will hear the grievance. In addition, remind the employee of his or her right to be accompanied.
The meeting should involve the aggrieved employee, their optional representative, the employee’s manager and an HR team member, as well as a notetaker who is not involved in the case. Promote an open, relaxed atmosphere and encourage discussion.
Similarly, allow the employee to vent (within reason) without acting defensive in response. Having a problem-solving attitude will help you see all sides of the grievance as you work toward a resolution.
After the grievance meeting, take up to five more business days to come to a decision. This may require further investigation of the grievance based on new information that came to light in the meeting.
Keep lines of communication open with the aggrieved employee throughout the grievance handling process. Be available for questions and concerns. Listen well to the employee, too. When an employee doesn’t feel that their concerns are addressed properly, they may lose productivity, leave your company or even take legal action.
Human Resources and management should work together to decide on what action (if any) to take in response to the grievance. Try to find a permanent solution to the problem rather than simply troubleshooting. For example, if an employee complains of harassment by their manager, ensure all managers receive harassment training. This reduces the likelihood that a similar grievance will be filed later. Additionally, make sure to action grievances related to misconduct or policies and procedures as soon as possible.
After a decision is made, communicate it to the employee in writing. If the grievance is not upheld, explain why. Remind the employee that they have the option to appeal the decision if they do not agree with it. If action is taken, be sure to monitor and review it to see if it has been effective.
If the aggrieved employee wishes to appeal your decision, require that they submit their grounds in writing. Then, schedule an appeal meeting that follows a similar format to the resolution meeting. Save time by coming up with a few different options to suggest should the employee choose to appeal. You can bring these up in the discussion at the appeal meeting.
Someone in the next level of management should hear the appeal, if possible. Bring documents and records from the resolution meeting for reference and review. Most importantly, pay attention to any new information or evidence. Within five business days from the meeting, communicate your decision to the employee, noting that it is final.
Filing grievances may be different for unionized vs. non-unionized workplaces and workers. For example, in a non-unionized workplace, a grievance is little more than a formally submitted complaint. In a unionized workplace, though, there is a more formal grievance filing process that requires the employee to submit their concerns through the union instead of directly to their employer.
Representation in a grievance meeting may also look different. Non-unionized employees may request to bring a coworker, manager or other witness to accompany them to the meeting. On the other hand, unionized employees will likely be accompanied by a union representative or other official employed by the union.
When dealing with employee grievances, employers may feel a wide range of emotions from fear to anger to enlightenment. Keep a calm, positive attitude and following your grievance handling policies and procedures to help you reach a resolution that everyone is satisfied with. Remember:
- Don’t take anything personally. Most of the time, employees are not trying to be malicious. They have a genuine concern about their safety or well-being. Take a step back and try to see things from their perspective.
- Stick to the subject at hand. A grievance meeting is not the time to bring up other issues. Focus on resolving the concerns outlined in the grievance without getting sidetracked or assigning blame.
- Respond to the grievance quickly. Employees want to feel heard. A fast response shows that you respect and care about them. Putting off a response to the grievance could lead to more complaints on the employee’s list or worse, a lawsuit. “It’s best to address [the grievance] as soon as possible to prevent things from escalating,” Kolbaba notes.